Suggesting that California stands beyond the pale is hardly groundbreaking journalism. In fact, there are entire websites devoted to the intersection of the Golden State and the bizarre (try "Weird California").
But as the 2014 election winds down, California hasn't been too big to ignore. It's more like: too odd to believe.
Let's begin with California's governor's race.
Jerry Brown, America's oldest governor and the prohibitive favorite for a record fourth term, will be 80 when term limits force him to retire – or chase another office. In a state that probably spends more than the other 49 combined on the pursuit of age-defying solutions, Brown is five years younger than Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinProgressive groups urge Feinstein to back filibuster carve out for voting rights or resign Senators call for Smithsonian Latino, women's museums to be built on National Mall Five faces from the media who became political candidates MORE (D) and only two years older than Sen. Barbara BoxerBarbara Levy BoxerFirst senator formally endorses Bass in LA mayoral bid Bass receives endorsement from EMILY's List Bass gets mayoral endorsement from former California senator MORE (D) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D) — all fellow Northern Californians.
So much for the San Francisco Bay as California's fountain of youth.
To the extent that Brown has bothered to address voters, it's been on behalf of a pair of ballot initiatives — a $7.5 billion water bond and a rainy-day fund. Last weekend, Brown didn't bother at all to hit the campaign trail – flying east to attend his Yale Law 50th reunion.
As for Brown's challenger, businessman and one-time Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) point man Neel Kashkari, the first-time Republican candidate has tried to wage a breakthrough campaign (reaching out to neglected minority communities) without the resources to break through the Golden State's expensive media paywall. Brown's amassed a $23 million war chest that he's barely tapped into; going into last weekend, Kashkari had only $841,000 on hand — barely enough for a few days of paid advertising.
What happens when a California candidate can't spend what it takes to raise his profile? You get results such as those in this week's Hoover Institution Golden State Poll, which had Brown ahead 48 percent to 31 percent. Kashkari trailed by two-to-one margins among women and Latinos, by five-to-one among Asians and seven-to-one among blacks. Perhaps most telling about the low-wattage campaign: 69 percent of likely Kashkari supporters said they're casting an anti-Brown vote; only 29 percent called it a pro-Kashkari choice.
The funny thing is: This may not bother the California Republican Party — not when the state GOP is in a rebuild mode that defines success as progress much further down the ballot.
In 2014, Republican candidates likely won't win any of the state's seven partisan constitutional offices. If so, counting both state constitutional and U.S. Senate contests, Republican candidates will have lost 37 of the last 41 such races dating back to 1998.
Then again, on the same election night that Republicans likely will fortify their position in the U.S. House of Representatives and quite possibly take back the Senate, it won't matter if the top of the California GOP ticket goes hitless. Not if two things happen: 1) Republicans succeed in preventing Democrats from gaining a two-thirds supermajority in the two chambers of the State Legislature; 2) GOP challengers knock off Democratic incumbents in California's 7th, 26th and 52nd Congressional Districts.
And the California GOP's partner in making this happen: Gov. Brown.
Running a penny-pinching effort that's all about legacy and does little to set Democrats' heart aflutter, Brown may succeed in getting his ballot measures. But something else about dwelling on water and rainy-day funds: It puts voters to sleep, especially progressives who turn out in presidential years but not so much for midterms.
According to a survey released last week by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), voter enthusiasm in 2014 California is running at about 40 percent. In 2010, when the gubernatorial combatants were Brown and Meg Whitman, the former eBay CEO who spent $144 million of her personal fortune in a campaign that lacked voters but not visibility, voter enthusiasm stood at 53 percent.
Californians in 2014 aren't just turned off; they've tuned out. Four years ago, according to PPIC, 89 percent of the Golden State's electorate was following news about the candidates; in 2014, it's 52 percent. As for those very closely following the news, that figure's down by almost 54 percent. Voters aren't engaged, and neither are special interests: Only $32 million in out-of-state money has been invested in California in 2014, compared to $55 million funneled into North Carolina and that state's Senate race.
Perhaps Brown wants it this way because he knows his reelection is a fait accompli.
Or, maybe his motivation is avoiding a conversation about some thorny issues facing the state over the next four years. That would include: 1) what to do about Proposition 30, the temporary tax hike approved by voters in 2012 that fully expires in 2018 (and without which, there is no state budget surplus); 2) legislative Democrats' desire to amend the fabled Proposition 13, lifting the tax cap on commercial property; and 3) a Democratic state constitutional amendment, tabled this year, that would repeal Proposition 209 and restore race-based admissions to California's public universities and colleges.
Hoover's Golden State Poll surveyed these three topics. The results: There's no consensus as to extending Prop 30 or making it permanent; Prop 13 sentiment is evenly split; killing Prop 209 looks like a loser (52 percent opposed).
What it portends: California may be in store for the sort of bruising, divisive, base-thumping struggles that Brown mostly avoided during the past four years. In the case of revisiting racial quotas, Democrats may be opening the door for California Republicans to make inroad into minority communities (especially Asian-Americans, the big losers in an admissions numbers game in California).
It could be quite a show – only, not in this election.
Whalen is a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, where he analyzes California and national politics. He also writes about the 2014 elections at the blog A Day at the Races.