Tom Fulks

Warning: A political storm is brewing in SLO County

Debbie Arnold on the biggest issue facing the 5th District

When Debbie Arnold ran for re-election in 2016 to the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors, we asked her, what is the most important issue facing the 5th District? It's the same issue in 2020.
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When Debbie Arnold ran for re-election in 2016 to the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors, we asked her, what is the most important issue facing the 5th District? It's the same issue in 2020.

On the East Coast, people get used to hurricanes, which gather offshore and give plenty of warning.

On the West Coast, people get used to earthquakes, which lurk underground and offer no warning at all — usually.

Living in the Trump Era, it seems we’re dealing with both phenomena at the same time: We know full well there’s a political storm over the horizon; there’s plenty of warning. Yet when the storm inevitably arrives, hitting like an earthquake, its devastation seemingly catches everyone by surprise.

It’s nuts. As the Beltway cliché goes, crazy is the new normal.

The recent mid-term election — in which Democrats swept into office nearly everywhere, including San Luis Obispo County — portends a storm brewing for 2020, aimed directly at the Republican Party.

Last election, we witnessed the highest midterm election turnout in a century. In addition to taking the House with 40 wins (the biggest Democratic gain since Watergate), Democrats flipped Orange County from red to blue and took several seats in the Central Valley — both traditional GOP strongholds – winning all seven targeted GOP-held House seats in California.

In Sacramento, Democrats retained the governorship, forged supermajorities in the Assembly and Senate and now control every statewide elected position.

Democrats also picked up full control of state governments in Colorado, Illinois, Maine, New Mexico, New York and Nevada.

In several states where Republicans had full control – Kansas, Michigan, New Hampshire and Wisconsin – they now share power with Democrats.

Democratic wins this year in those states mean a stronger hand when they face redrawing congressional district lines in 2021.

In SLO County, local elective offices are ostensibly non-partisan and used to operate that way. Not anymore.

That said, every Democrat endorsed by the Democratic Party won, sweeping into or maintaining majorities on the City Councils in SLO, Arroyo Grande, Morro Bay and Grover Beach. In Atascadero, a Democrat won a seat on a City Council controlled exclusively by Republicans for at least a decade.

“The Grand Old Party is dead,” says former California Assembly Republican leader and current Stanislaus County Supervisor Kristin Olsen in a recent CALmatters opinion piece, “partly because it has failed to separate itself from today’s toxic, national brand of Republican politics. … (T)he Republican Party has failed to adapt to changing demographics and to get back to our … fundamental belief in liberty and responsibility, freedom, economic opportunity, and educational excellence.”

Olsen lays blame for Democrats mugging California Republicans squarely at the feet of Donald Trump.

“Individual Republicans are good, conscientious people dedicated to serving their communities,” Olsen writes, “but they belong to a brand and a national party that is toxic and growing more toxic by the day. … Ignoring the toxicity is not enough, as California’s election results demonstrate.”

In SLO County, three Trump Republicans control the majority of the county Board of Supervisors. In 2020, two of them will be up for re-election.

The GOP once dominated SLO County’s voter registration and turnout. That edge has been effectively eliminated over the past few years by steady Democratic voter registration efforts and demographic changes triggered in large measure by migration from California’s liberal urban areas.

Of the 172,544 registered SLO County voters, 34.8 percent are Republican, 34.5 percent are registered Democrats, a difference of 587 voters.

Another huge contributor to the diminished local GOP registration edge is the increase in Trump defectors. “No Party Preference” (NPP) voters now make up 24.5 percent of registered voters.

Republicans still hold a solid lead in supervisorial District 1 (R-44%, D-27%, NPP-24%), represented by Republican John Peschong, up for re-election in 2020.

Democrats maintain an edge in District 3 (D-39%, R-30%, NPP-25%), held by Democrat Adam Hill, also up in 2020.

District 5 could be the philosophical battleground of SLO County in 2020, when incumbent Trumpster Supervisor Debbie Arnold is up for re-election. There, Republicans have a 1,496-voter advantage (R-37%, D-32%, NPP-24%), about the same margin as Arnold’s victories in 2012 and 2016.

That district has swung back and forth over the years between Republican and Democratic supervisors, depending on redistricting and how much of the district is in heavily Republican North County or heavily Democrat city of SLO.

Given the anti-Trump factor within the GOP outlined by Olsen, the growing NPP vote throughout SLO County, and gains made last election by Democrats in Atascadero and the city of SLO, there may just be a storm brewing over the horizon in District 5, aimed at Arnold.

Signs of a modest local political earthquake abound. We’ve been warned.

Liberal columnist Tom Fulks serves on the San Luis Obispo County Democratic Central Committee.

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