Nov. 16 2011 11:38 AM

But there's a slight chance of silver linings at all levels of government

Credit: Pete Souza/White House

Four years ago, progressives had the wind behind them, and it smelled like petunias. The Democrats had recaptured Congress, George W. Bush was the ultimate scapegoat and presidential candidates Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards were harnessing the power of the individual through social media and small donations. They were channeling outrage into hope while conservative voters were saddled with soggy policies and slapstick candidates.

So, the country went from “Yes we can” to “Yes we did.” Today, however, progressives have to wonder, “WTF are we going to do now?” The 2012 campaign cycle will be enervating for liberals as hope has turned to cynicism and begun to shift back into outrage. But lackluster leadership is only one of several problems for the left. There's doom and gloom on the horizon as the factors converge, like high and low pressure systems, to create a perfect storm for Republicans.

Or a tsunami, as one of San Diego's more devious Republican operatives puts it.

“In the last election cycle, we saw a Republican wave, but that wave stopped in the Sierras,” says Derrick Roach, secretary of the San Diego County Republican Party. “This year, I think it's going to come crashing over the Sierra Nevada mountains, and it's going to roll into California.”

That doesn't have to happen if the left decides to pull on galoshes, unfold its umbrella and step into the mud. Here's our breakdown of the bleak political weather conditions for progressives who decide to face the thunder:

Uninspiring Dems, charismatic Republicans

In 2008, progressive voters had a slate of strong personalities to choose from at the top of the ticket and, when Obama won the nomination, liberals lined up behind a leader whose words electrified.

Unfortunately, Obama didn't have quite the same impact on Washington. According to, Obama has kept only 31 percent of the pledges he made during his campaign and outright broken 10 percent of them. Obama did appoint two moderately liberal Supreme Court justices, and that alone might be sufficient to earn progressive votes—but it may not be enough to convince progressives to pound the pavement. His approval rating has sunk from more than 60 percent at the beginning of his term to just above 40 percent, according to Real Clear Politics' poll of polls.

At the local level, San Diego progressives won't find many candidates to get revved up about, either. State Sen. Juan Vargas, the presumed front-runner for Democratic stronghold Congressional District 51, is the epitome of revolving-door politics, having legislated favorably for the insurance industry as an Assembly member, then accepting a job as an insurance lobbyist. In 2010, he narrowly won his Senate seat with the help of big independent expenditures by corporate interests, which may very well come to his aid in his 2012 bid to replace Rep. Bob Filner.

Meanwhile, Filner is running for mayor of San Diego as the lone Democrat in the race. Filner has a strong record of no-compromise liberal leadership, but he can be arrogant, flippant, hot-tempered and loose with the facts; several Democratic players have already defected to support moderate Republican Bonnie Dumanis. Even die-hard liberals are cautious, with lefty blogger Doug Porter of recently writing an open letter to Filner begging him to clean up his act.

Meantime, Republicans are getting to know their presidential candidates through a long, momentum-building run of debates, and San Diegans in particular seem drawn to Mitt Romney, who's raised $128,000 so far from area donors. But it's the mayoral race where the Republican Party is putting up the truly charismatic candidates. Through carefully coordinated outreach and media strategy, Councilmember Carl De- Maio has built a cult following of anti-labor, fiscally conservative activists. Meanwhile, Assemblymember Nathan Fletcher is also pulling in a surprising amount of support simply by being gracious, moderate, articulate and attractive.

Silver lining: One gleam of hope can be found in the newly competitive 52nd Congressional District race, where Republican incumbent and corporate errand boy Rep. Brian Bilbray faces challengers both from the right and the left. Former Assemblymember Lori Saldana hopes to represent the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and the Occupy Wall Street movement. She's raised almost $30,000 from 1,900 donors through the small-donor website Act Blue. Port Commissioner and former City Councilmember Scott Peters also joined the race as a centrist Democrat.

Fog of uncertainty

If California elections are a game, both the board and the rules have been largely redrawn and rewritten for 2012. Federal, state and local electoral districts were restructured this year in connection with new U.S. Census numbers, and in 2010, voters passed an initiative that eliminated party-specific primaries in federal and state races. Instead, the top two contenders in a primary—even if they're in the same party—advance to the general election.

Redistricting and the so-called “open primary” format have campaign gurus scrambling to glean any advantage in a year that seems to lack a clear advantage for anyone. In response, political strategies have taken some peculiar turns. How else to describe the decision in September by the county Republican Party Executive Committee to begin endorsing candidates—City attorney Jan Goldsmith, county supervisor candidate Steve Danon and three conservative City Council candidates—nine months before the June primary? The party is working through the process of endorsing a single mayoral candidate, too.

It could be that Republicans recognize that with an incumbent Democrat as president, conservative voters will be much more energized come June and turn out in bigger numbers.

In the city of San Diego, redistricting carved a ninth City Council seat where there had been eight, but it's District 7 where political eyes are focused. Marti Emerald, a Democrat and the current District 7 council member, will compete for the new District 9 seat in 2012. District 7, some political observers believe, now leans slightly more conservative, and Republicans are expected to wage full-out war in hopes of chipping away at the San Diego City Council's Democratic majority.

Silver lining: With the new District 52, Bilbray's the most vulnerable he's been in years, but progressives could also get a treat in District 51, where Vargas and challenger Denise Ducheny, also a Democrat, may have to court liberals in not one, but two elections.

Initiative madness

At a Republican Party gathering in April, Carl De- Maio pledged to make San Diego “the Wisconsin of the West,” a reference to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's anti-labor initiatives.

Part of that promise was getting two measures on the local ballot. One would forbid the city to require project-labor agreements, or PLAs—union-friendly construction agreements that guarantee decent pay and benefits. The other would put a five-year cap on city-employees' pay and move all new hires, except cops, into a 401(k)-style retirement plan.

Getting the latter measure on the ballot cost more than $1.1 million, or $8 for each of the 145,027 signatures turned in—an indication of what DeMaio and his ilk are willing to spend to see this through.

DeMaio's a master at crafting a narrative and sticking to it, truth be damned. Both these measures help him— and his mayoral campaign—tell a tale about how labor unions have financially ruined the city of San Diego.

But, there's no conclusive studies showing that PLAs cost taxpayers more money—and, no one can recall the last time the city entered into a PLA, making this measure more about politics than protecting taxpayers. Nevertheless, PLA bans are easily sold to voters, who approved similar measures in San Diego County, Oceanside and Chula Vista in 2010. As for the pension-reform measure, legitimate questions have been raised about its cost-savings claims. If the measure survives a potential legal challenge from the city's largest labor union, it'll pass easily, with proponents appealing to voters' pension envy.

Gov. Jerry Brown hopes to put his state-level pension-reform measure on the ballot in November. Less onerous than DeMaio's, Brown's has raised some legal issues, too, about whether—and how—benefits promised to public employees can be altered.

Silver lining: Though none are yet on the ballot, there are three state-level measures that will make any good progressive smile. There's marijuana legalization and death-penalty repeal, and, this week, folks behind the Three Strikes Reform Act filed paperwork with the state attorney General to get a measure on the November ballot that would overhaul the California law that's contributed to state-prison overcrowding.

Money, money, money

Every modern election cycle has set a record in terms of campaign spending. Derek Cressman, the western states regional director for the nonprofit government reform organization Common Cause, says there are two reasons 2012 will top them all.

“One is the courts continue to weaken campaign-finance laws, so it's easier for bigger donors,” Cressman says. “Two, we are in a period of very divisive politics in America and a lot of corporations and a lot of hugely wealthy individuals feel there's a lot at stake at this moment. Some may look at the Occupy movement and decide to dig even deeper into their bank accounts.”

In the wake of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, corporations and unions will be able to spend unlimited amounts of money through what are colloquially called “Super PACs.” On the state level, the change won't have much impact, since corporations and labor unions are already allowed to spend pretty freely. However, the rise of Super PACs will likely result in more negative campaigning, Cressman says, which could pick up in San Diego races if it looks like the balance of power in the House of Representatives could tip. The problem is that much of that money will come in under the radar at the last minute and it will be difficult to find out who actually paid for it.

Silver lining: Campaign advertising may be reaching critical mass, as Cressman explains that voters are starting to ignore advertisements more and more and educating themselves through readily available information online.

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