GOP hopes gas tax ire distracts from Trump in lawmaker races

October 6, 2018

FILE - In this Jan. 25, 2018, file photo California Gov. Jerry Brown delivers his annual State of the State address before a joint session of the Legislature, in Sacramento, Calif. All 80 state Assembly seats and half of the 40 Senate seats are up for election this year. At stake is Democrats' two-thirds supermajorities that let them raise taxes or change legislative rules without any Republican support. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California voters’ feelings about a gas tax increase and President Donald Trump will help determine whether Democrats retain, bolster or lose their supermajorities in the state Legislature.

Republicans are trying to counter any backlash against Trump in the Nov. 6 general election with the pocketbook issue of higher gas and car fees. Lawmakers last year raised gas taxes by 12 cents a gallon, along with diesel taxes and vehicle registration fees.

They’ve put a measure on the November ballot to repeal the tax increase and are trying to pummel Democratic Assembly members who voted for it. At least a dozen GOP candidates are tying their coattails to the repeal campaign.

“We look forward to making the folks who voted for the gas tax accountable,” said George Andrews, Assembly Republicans’ political director.

They’ve already had some success. Voters in June recalled Democratic Sen. Josh Newman from his traditionally Republican Orange County-based district midway through his term, thereby denying Democrats a supermajority that allows them to raise taxes or suspend legislative rules without any Republican support.

Democrats need 54 votes for a two-thirds majority in the 80-member Assembly, and have 55. They need 27 votes in the 40-member Senate, and have 26 after Newman was recalled.

That supermajority wasn’t as important under termed-out Gov. Jerry Brown, who tended to govern from the center, said University of California, San Diego political scientist Thad Kousser. But he said it is vital if Democratic front-runner Gavin Newsom becomes governor and advances a more liberal agenda including state-funded health coverage for all and broadening the state’s notoriously volatile tax base.

It would allow Democrats to override vetoes by Republican John Cox should he become governor.

Newsom has been campaigning statewide for legislative Democrats, citing the importance of the supermajority.

Democrats hope that opposition to Trump spills over from hotly contested congressional races.

“Donald Trump is going to be at the top of voters’ minds up and down California, whether they love him or hate him,” said Kousser, while the gas tax may resonate in certain districts.

Control of the Legislature hinges on a number of key swing districts.

Democrats passed the transportation fee increases by recruiting support from termed-out Republican Sen. Anthony Cannella.

Cannella’s vacant Central Valley seat is now what California Republican Party spokesman Matt Fleming called “ground zero” in the battle over Democratic domination of the Legislature.

Assemblywoman Anna Caballero hopes to take the Senate seat from Republicans with the benefit of Democrats’ 18-point edge in voter registration and her greater name recognition compared to Madera County Supervisor Rob Poythress. But Republicans are beating her up over her support for the gas tax and various criminal justice bills.

Republicans already gave up a vote in the Assembly, when voters picked two Democrats to face off for the seat vacated by incumbent GOP Assemblyman Rocky Chavez.

They’re trying to recoup by spotlighting gas tax votes by Riverside County Assemblywoman Sabrina Cervantes and several other Democrats representing inland suburban commuter districts.

“That’s the entire Republican game plan at this point, is to run on the gas tax,” said Bill Wong, Assembly Democrats’ political director. “Our belief is that when the voters realize that, one, it’s a cynical political ploy by the Republicans and, two, that a repeal would lead to unsafe streets and bridges, they’re going to turn on the Republicans.”

Lingering fallout from the #MeToo movement also plays into several races.

Several incumbents are seeking re-election despite official reprimands for vulgar or sexually charged language, including Democratic Assemblywomen Autumn Burke and Cristina Garcia, and Republican Assemblyman Devon Mathis. Democratic Sen. Bob Hertzberg was reprimanded for unwelcome hugs.

Meanwhile, former Democratic Assemblyman Steve Fox is trying to unseat GOP incumbent Tom Lackey despite the Assembly paying $100,000 to an aide who said Fox exposed himself. Fox has declined comment.

Update hourly