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Why Sessions Suing California May Have Done Democrats a Favor

It may be years before the courts decide the Trump administration's lawsuit that seeks to overturn California's sanctuary laws, but the political impact will be felt in just months. And it likely won't help Republicans.

By Joe Garofoli

It may be years before the courts decide the Trump administration's lawsuit that seeks to overturn California's sanctuary laws, but the political impact will be felt in just months. And it likely won't help Republicans.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions ramped up the political tension Wednesday when he told a law enforcement gathering in Sacramento that California "is using every power it has -- and powers it doesn't -- to frustrate federal law enforcement. So you can be sure I'm going to use every power I have to stop them."

His underlying message will frighten immigrant communities and should energize Latino voters, who already overwhelmingly vote for Democrats. That could be a welcome boon for Democrats in the June primary election, because fewer Latinos vote in midterm elections than during presidential years.

And Republican candidates will feel pain as they embrace Trump's law-and-order stance to try to attract conservative primary voters, an embrace that will move them further from California's political mainstream should they advance to the general election in November.

"Politically, what it does is help Democrats by mobilizing Latino voters," said Luis Alvarado, a GOP strategist and president of the Latino Legislative Roundtable. "As I listened to Jeff Sessions speak, I imagined TV commercials on behalf of Democrats in the state."

While some analysts predict that the increasing threat of immigration raids has energized Latino voters in recent elections in Texas and Virginia, GOP strategist and Latino vote expert Mike Madrid said "that's not really excitement. Being 'energized' usually means you're happy. These people are voting out of anger and fear. And California is the mother lode of that. This will absolutely affect the outcome of races in California in June."

Overall, 58 percent of likely California voters, including 53 percent of independent voters, 54 percent of whites and 80 percent of Latinos, support sanctuary city policies, according to a January survey by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.

Increased Latino turnout could affect California's gubernatorial campaign in multiple ways. During his speech Wednesday, Sessions blasted Democrat Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who leads in most polls, for praising Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf when she warned last month of impending federal immigration sweeps.

"Bragging about and encouraging the obstruction of our law enforcement and the law is an embarrassment to this proud and important state," Sessions said about Newsom without using his name.

Alvarado said being name-checked -- even anonymously -- by Trump's attorney general would be worn as a badge of honor by Newsom.

"They're popping Champagne at Newsom's headquarters because Jeff Sessions cemented him as the head of the progressives," Alvarado said.

But Madrid, who also is a senior adviser to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Antonio Villaraigosa, said that while Newsom may have scored the name-check, increased Latino turnout may ultimately help Villaraigosa more.

"I don't think anybody is going to remember who was name-checked in June," Madrid said.

"The bigger story is that this is a part of a tectonic shift in politics. It's not about one speech or one event or one day," Madrid said. "It's about a series of events and policies that are happening -- and that Latinos and female candidates will be the beneficiaries. That's because Latinos and women tend to vote for Latino candidates and female candidates."

A January survey of 900 registered Latino voters found that 68 percent said they were "100 percent" certain that they would vote. That turnout would be off the charts for the state's 4.5 million Latino voters, especially considering that only 25 percent of all registered California voters cast ballots in California's last midterm election in 2014.

The survey by Latino Decisions, which conducted the poll on behalf of the Latino Community Foundation, found that a bump in Latino turnout could help Villaraigosa, a former Los Angeles mayor. He was the preferred candidate of Latino voters, with 39 percent saying they'd vote for him in the primary, followed by Newsom with 15 percent of the vote.

The two top Republicans in the governor's race came out strongly in support of Sessions' lawsuit.

Coinciding with Sessions' visit, Rancho Santa Fe GOP business executive John Cox released a radio ad that attempted to tie the 2015 killing of Kate Steinle on Pier 14 in San Francisco by undocumented immigrant Jose Ines Garcia Zarate to Newsom.

"The senseless, random killing of 32-year-old Kate Steinle by an illegal alien convict, is chilling testimony to how Gavin Newsom's sanctuary city values differ from the rest of us," Cox says in the ad. "As governor, I promise you that on my first day in office I will act to repeal Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom's sanctuary state and restore the rule of law."

Cox's prime GOP opponent, Assemblyman Travis Allen, R-Huntington Beach (Orange County), welcomed Sessions' move, something he called for in January -- along with Attorney General Xavier Becerra to be arrested for flouting federal immigration law. On Wednesday, Allen blasted "the Bay Area liberal elites that control California's government."

But Alvarado said that while that may play well in the gubernatorial primary -- where Cox and Allen are fighting over the 41 percent of the ballots expected to be cast for Republican candidates -- "It becomes very difficult to defend that in the general election."

This latest battle in the ongoing "war," as Brown put it Wednesday, between the Trump administration and California is likely to have mixed impact on congressional races -- particularly on the 10 GOP-held seats that Democrats are trying to flip.

A boost in the Latino turnout could have a bigger impact in Central Valley districts, like the one represented by Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock (Stanislaus County), where 40 percent of the residents and 28 percent of the registered voters are Latino, according to the nonpartisan California Target Book, a compendium of statistics on the state's political districts. It could also impact Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford (Kings County), where 71 percent of the population and 57 percent of the registered voters are Latino.

Some progressives are trying to capture this political energy -- particularly among young voters who are sympathetic to the Democrat position on immigration. On Wednesday, NextGen America, the organization founded and funded by San Francisco activist Tom Steyer, announced it would be spending $3.5 million to register young voters in seven GOP-held congressional districts.

But that outreach might have less of an impact in some of the targeted GOP-held seats in Orange County, like the one represented by Rep. Mimi Walters, R-Irvine, where only 19 percent of the population, and 12 percent of the registered voters are Latino.

However, embracing Sessions' rhetoric may backfire, too.

"You can hold on to your base if you go that route, but the average suburban white Republican is going to think it's mean-spirited and not go along with it," said Matt Baretto, a co-founder of Latino Decisions.

(c)2018 the San Francisco Chronicle

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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