The Two Left Coasts: Why the GOP wave didn’t wash over New York and California

Commentary, Role of Government, Frontier Centre

Tuesday’s GOP landslide didn’t spare many Democrats, but it did stop at the state lines of California and New York. These coastal exceptions deserve some explanation, because they illustrate the difficulties Republicans will face if they fail to reform entitlements, taxes and public spending.

In California, Senator Barbara Boxer cruised handily to a fourth term, defeating Carly Fiorina by nine percentage points and change. Democrats also notched a victory with Jerry Brown’s restoration to the Governor’s mansion; he won 54% to 41% despite being outspent 4 to 1. Democrats widened their margins in the state assembly and picked off the Republican incumbent for lieutenant governor and took insurance commissioner.

It looks as if Republicans turned over merely one of California’s 53 House districts, though they may still also unseat Democrat Jerry McNerney, who is only leading by about 100 votes in San Joaquin County. Meanwhile, voters overwhelmingly rejected Proposition 23, which would freeze the state’s climate regulations when joblessness is high, and they even passed another ballot measure that erodes the supermajority requirement for tax increases.

Back in New York, the party saw more success, stealing five House seats from the Democrats, one on Staten Island and the rest upstate. In the district that connects Syracuse to the Rochester suburbs, Republican Ann Marie Buerkle also edged into a 659-vote lead yesterday. But the GOP botched the 23rd district, again, which had been safe since 1992 until last year’s intraparty feud helped elect a Democrat.

In the state Comptroller’s race, Thomas DiNapoli eked out a win over Harry Wilson, a talented Republican who ran on rationalizing public pensions. For Attorney General, voters broke for Albany denizen Eric Schneiderman over Dan Donovan, another promising Republican. And of course Governor-elect Andrew Cuomo trounced the catastrophe known as Carl Paladino, who harmed down-ticket races statewide.

At some level, this Democratic immunity can be blamed on unforced errors like the dysfunctional Empire State GOP establishment, or on the fact that California’s Democratic voters outnumbered Republicans by 13 points over the national average, according to exit polls. But the larger warning concerns the power that lies at the iron triangle of public employee unions, high taxes and social budgets that are larger than the economies in other states.

The fiscs in both Albany and Sacramento are perched atop a shrinking base of taxpayers, many so wealthy that they don’t care what tax rates are. The highest-earning 1% funds nearly half of the New York budget. The liberal political class then feeds these dollars to its union constituents—not least in the form of gold-plated benefits and pensions—who in turn spend mightily to protect their patrons, even as the state budgets lurch ever closer to Grecian territory.

One of the most powerful forces in Golden State politics is the militant California Nurses Association, which might as well be a government workers union given the size of MediCal, the state Medicaid program. The nurses call Ms. Fiorina "Princess Carly." In New York, there’s the Working Families Party, which is an adjunct of the public-sector labor movement and spent heavily to elect the Cuomo-DiNapoli-Schneiderman triumvirate.

As this agenda squeezes the middle class and drives jobs out of state, it leaves politics to a coalition of well-off knowledge professionals, public employees and lower-income workers who depend on the state for transfer payments. The well-paid elites in finance, fashion, media, tech or Hollywood tend to view environmental issues like cap and tax as enlightened social statements unrelated to economic growth.

We should add that much of the funding to defeat Proposition 23 came from a Silicon Valley that is deeply invested in green technology and its iron lung of government subsidies. After Dodd-Frank, Wall Street is also now more than ever tethered to Washington.

It’s telling that the coastal-state regions where Republicans did best on Election Day—upstate and exurban New York, California’s central valley—are demographically and economically closer to Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin than to Santa Barbara, Marin County or the tonier precincts of Greater New York City.

In other words, the results in California and New York are an instructive lesson in what happens when government doesn’t serve a state but holds it hostage.