Tom Fulks

Simple key to getting Democrats elected: Vote

Democrats who don’t vote elect Republicans.

The Republican Party is counting on this truth not only to win the White House, but also to maintain its grip on Congress, a majority of state houses and our own 35th Assembly District seat.

While Democrats are notorious for not showing up come election day, Republican strategists are also using the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act as an opening to aggressively restrict voting rights across the nation.

Their rationale? “Voter fraud.” There’s no evidence of endemic voter fraud. Republicans are simply disenfranchising low-income and minority voters — most of whom vote Democrat — with restrictive voter ID laws.

The obvious motive: If you can’t convince a majority of citizens to vote for you, prevent them from voting for your opponent. No need to campaign on the issues.

In delicious pot-meets-kettle irony, it’s Republicans who are actually suspected of widespread voter fraud in Kansas, whose secretary of state, Kris Kobach, has led a national crusade to restrict voting rights.

California Democratic Party officials are pushing back, banking on a new “motor voter” law — plus legions of their own party actually voting in November 2016 — to overcome the Republicans’ attempt to rig the nation’s voting systems.

The aim locally is to win the state’s presidential electoral college and protect the 24th Congressional District seat, being vacated by retiring Lois Capps.

And, for the first time since 1994 — when Democrat Jack O’Connell left the seat open upon election to the state Senate — they aim to capture the 35th Assembly District, being vacated by termed-out Katcho Achadjian.

The battleground is a district that comprises all of San Luis Obispo County plus Santa Maria, Orcutt, Guadalupe and Lompoc. Of its 215,727 registered voters, 69 percent reside in SLO County and 31 percent in Santa Barbara County.

Republicans make up 39.2 percent, Democrats 33.2 percent, “declined-to-state” voters 21.7 percent and minor parties 5.9 percent.

That 6 percent Republican advantage has some Democrats believing the district is “in play,” that it’s possible to win in 2016.

A long shot, for sure, but picking up the seat is achievable, based on the numbers and depending on several must-have factors – plus a large dose of ambitious thinking.

First, party strategists are counting on record Democratic voter turnout typically correlated with presidential election enthusiasm.

Second, they’re relying on intensive voter registration efforts by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, spurred by the open seat.

Third, and significantly, they’re depending on a jump in party registration due to the recently signed California motor voter law, set to take effect Jan. 1 next year, which potentially would increase Democratic voter rolls by hundreds of thousands statewide, with an untold number in the district.

This may not happen in time for the June 2016 primary, due to technical challenges setting up the new voter registration system called VoteCal.

But Democrats are betting the new system is ready for the November general election. It allows eligible voters to register when visiting a DMV office to get new driver licenses or renew expiring ones, without filling out new paper forms.

The fourth key factor for Democrats is their candidate, Dawn Ortiz-Legg, 56, of San Luis Obispo, a widely respected solar industry businesswoman. Democrats hope she has better business and policy gravitas — and district-wide respectability — than her lone Republican opponent, former government lawyer Jordan Cunningham, 37, of Templeton.

For the first time in years, both major party Assembly candidates are virtually unknown. In an environment where Democrats are using every tool to increase voter turnout, the Democrat may be able to compete with the Republican’s voter registration advantage.

Realistically, the odds are long. To overcome the Republican registration edge, Ortiz-Legg must secure every Democratic vote — not a given — then attract an additional 6 percent from “declined-to-state” and cross-party voters.

Difficult, at best, especially for a candidate who needs moderates and conservatives to view her capable of “reaching across the aisle” and appearing levelheaded.

But every statement Ortiz-Legg makes to accommodate conservative voters risks alienating some in her already-slim Democratic voting base.

She must moderate that risk by arguing simple logic: Even if she espouses moderate to conservative positions to broaden her appeal, Ortiz-Legg is still a Democrat.

That means she’ll still vote for core party principles on the environment, climate change, reproductive rights, women’s rights and other key issues.

A tough mission, but not impossible in a district with many sensible voters.

Ortiz-Legg also needs her party’s help convincing Democrats that if they don’t vote, they elect Republicans.

Tom Fulks is a former reporter and opinion writer whose three-decade career included positions with The Tribune, Five Cities Times-Press-Recorder and New Times. He has been a political campaign consultant for many local races. His column appears twice a month in The Tribune, in rotation with conservative columnist John Peschong.

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