The Week in Politics: Where Conservatives Lost (and Gained) Ground and More

The most important election news and political dynamics at the state and local levels.
by | June 10, 2016
San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer was re-elected on Tuesday. (AP/Lenny Ignelzi)

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Where Conservatives Lost Ground

The split between more conservative Republicans and establishment types played out in a number of Western legislative races this week.

Republicans control the Montana Legislature, but Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock has managed to steer a number of his priorities into law. He has benefited from the willingness of self-described "responsible" Republicans to join Democrats and thwart more conservative members on issues like school funding, campaign finance, pensions and Medicaid expansion.

That coalition was strengthened on Tuesday in the state's primaries. Not only were two conservative state House incumbents defeated, but moderate Republicans also picked up one seat in both the House and Senate that had been left vacant by conservatives.

Power didn't change hands, however, in about a dozen other contested races.

"What's really important here is that the only two incumbents who lost were two prominent conservatives," said David Parker, a political scientist at Montana State University.

Heading into the primaries, the so-called responsible Republicans enjoyed much deeper financial backing than conservatives, receiving help from groups representing businesses, union members and Native Americans. 

"The real winner, frankly, is probably Bullock," said Parker.

On top of the prospect of gaining more help in the legislature, Bullock won the Democratic primary and will face Republican businessman Greg Gianforte in what will be a contentious race for governor in November.

In South Dakota, GOP Gov. Dennis Daugaard didn't enjoy quite the same success as Bullock.

He offered financial backing to Republicans in eight state Senate primaries -- all of whom favored changes in school funding formulas and a state sales tax increase.

But three of his eight favorites lost on Tuesday to more conservative candidates, including state Sen. Bruce Rampelberg and two state representatives looking to move up to the Senate.

California Primary Highlights

Democrats are mayors in 22 of the 25 largest cities. As mayor of San Diego, Kevin Faulconer presides over a larger city than any other Republican. Nevertheless, he easily won re-election Tuesday against a split field.

The Democratic candidate, Ed Harris, actually finished third behind Lori Saldaña, a former Democratic state representative who ran as an independent.

Saldaña presented herself as a progressive alternative to Faulconer. But Faulconer ran as a moderate, touting his significant financial investment in the city's plan to slow climate change and refusing to endorse Donald Trump. California news outlets touted Faulconer as "perhaps the most prominent Republican leader in the state of California," offering a "glimmer of hope for a Republican revival."

The California GOP can use it. For the first time since the adoption of the 17th Amendment in 1913 allowed direct election of senators, no Republican will be on the general election ballot this fall. Thanks to the state's primary system, which allows the top two finishers to advance regardless of party, the contest for the U.S. Senate seat comes down to state Attorney General Kamala Harris and U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez, both Democrats.

San Diego voters also approved a ballot initiative that increases the minimum wage to $10.50, with scheduled cost-of-living adjustments that could eventually increase local pay above the $15 minimum wage recently enacted by the state. The measure also mandates 40 hours of paid sick leave per year.

In Sacramento, the most expensive mayoral election in the city's history ended in favor of Darrell Steinberg. A former California state Senate president pro tem, Steinberg will succeed Kevin Johnson, who has been embroiled in scandal surrounding allegations of sexual misconduct.

Steinberg's 59 percent showing was good enough to avoid a November runoff against City Councilmember Angelique Ashby.

Ashby sought to portray Steinberg as a "hired gun" due to fees he collected advising the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. But Steinberg focused on his plans for combating crime and homelessness while also touting his work in the Senate on mental illness and other issues.

One of the other complaints Steinberg had to deal with was his handling of the criminal indictments of three state senators in 2014. Each was suspended but continued to collect their legislative salaries, which were only forfeited following resignation or expulsion. As part of the continuing fallout, California voters on Tuesday approved a ballot measure that will let the Senate and Assembly not only suspend their colleagues but dock their pay with a two-thirds vote.

Other Races in Other States 

North Carolina: With control of the state Supreme Court at stake, North Carolina primary voters set up an expensive November race between incumbent Justice Robert Edmunds and Superior Court Judge Mike Morgan. Although the contest is nominally nonpartisan, Edmunds is a Republican and Morgan a Democrat. Republicans currently have a 4-3 majority on the court.

New Mexico: In an Albuquerque district, Democratic state Rep. Idalia Lechuga-Tena lost to high school teacher Debbie Sariñana. Lechuga-Tena had been appointed to the seat last year by a split vote among Bernalillo County commmissioners. Lechuga-Tena, who received more support from Republican than Democratic commissioners, was the last in a string of appointments made to fill the seat as its occupants moved on to higher offices. Sariñana got the backing of state Sen. Mimi Stewart, who had previously held the House seat.

Iowa: Third-term Democratic state Rep. Dan Kelly was the loser in Iowa. He has been a vocal opponent of the Bakken pipeline, which would carry oil as it crosses the state on its way from North Dakota to Illinois and is supported by unions. In turn, unions backed his challenger, police officer Wes Breckenridge.

Iowa state Sen. David Johnson also made news on Election Day by renouncing his membership in the Republican Party. He declared himself an independent because of Trump's candidacy. Johnson called it "sheer insanity" that prominent Republicans were supporting Trump even as they condemned his racist remarks. "How do you stop a bigot?" Johnson said on Iowa Public Radio. "You've got to stop him or her in their tracks."

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