David Shribman: California’s Trailer for November’s Blockbuster

e a 435-part series — one episode for every congressional district — and the contours of the plot became clear in a much-ignored Tuesday primary fight in the state’s 41st congressional district. One of the victorious nominees believes the 2020 election was stolen — and he has the endorsement of former President Donald J. Trump. The other is casting the fall contest as a proxy vote about the future of American democracy.

It is a collision of two implacable positions.

It also is the theme of the debate over the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol spawned by the congressional hearings that began Thursday night. It is the theme of fights within the Republican Party. It almost certainly will be the theme of historians’ examinations of our troubled 21st century passage.

“The state of our politics is the most important question in our politics,” said Bruce Cain, a Stanford University political scientist. “This is a preview of the November election.”

Other preview elements of the fall campaign swiftly became apparent in recent days here in California. Despite its reputation for idiosyncratic politics — it elected Ronald Reagan and Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown Jr. in the same decade — California often speaks with a stentorian voice. The primaries showed a distinct impatience with Democrats, especially on crime, in a state that has voted Democratic in the last eight elections.

But nowhere in the country has the future-of-democracy theme been set out as clearly and as early as it has been in an aptly named “jungle primary” — a raucous procedure where the top two candidates regardless of party advance to the November general election — that played out here.

One of the finalists is a Republican, Rep. Ken Calvert, 69. He has been in the House for 30 years and has steadily drifted rightward since his days as an intern for the 1973 Senate Watergate hearings; indeed, in an assessment less than a decade ago, the respected Almanac of American Politics described him as “less conservative and outspoken than many of his firebrand colleagues from California.” No more. The man who once drew far-right opprobrium by criticizing radio host Rush Limbaugh voted with Mr. Trump 97% of the time and won enthusiastic backing from the 45th president, who said “Ken has my Complete and Total Endorsement!”

The other is a Democrat. He is Will Rollins, 37, a former federal prosecutor whose internet home page begins with a trumpet blast on the democratic-rule issue: “Let’s kick out extreme politicians like Ken Calvert who spread the big lies and elect a new generation of leaders willing to save our democracy.” Mr. Rollins, who stresses his experience in terrorism and national-security cases and who prosecuted Jan. 6 rioters, rolled out an introductory video this spring that bid voters to “elect a new generation of Americans willing to save our democracy.”

The two are competing in a redrawn congressional district and most analysts believe Mr. Calvert has an advantage from his incumbency and having about three times as much campaign money at his disposal, though Mr. Rollins in recent weeks has kept pace in the money race.

Mr. Calvert’s election-night statement emphasized moving the country “in a different direction from the constant state of crisis and inflation we have found ourselves under President Biden” — a theme that resonated throughout California in Tuesday’s primary, where the once-impregnable Democratic advantage seemed to crack.

But Mr. Rollins brushed aside his rival’s characterization of him as “a radical newcomer to our community who supports more of the same failed Biden/​Pelosi agenda” and said that he would seek votes of Republicans repelled by Mr. Calvert’s growing affinity for Mr. Trump. His campaign rhetoric warns of conspiracy theorists who want to “erode our democracy” and “spread the big lies.”

But the integrity of elections is an issue that cuts two ways. Political figures of both parties employ that rhetoric. Trump-aligned Republicans argue that the 2020 election was stolen. Democrats and some establishment Republicans warn that Mr. Trump’s allies will only accept election results that are in their favor, especially in a possible third Trump presidential campaign.

“You can see what the narrative will be: ‘constitutional foundations’ and ‘democracy-in-peril,’” said Claire Leavitt, a Smith College political scientist. “The protesters and the insurrection supporters don’t believe they were overturning democracy. They believe they were fulfilling democracy. The progressives who want to prosecute them feel they are doing the same thing. That is where the problem comes in: Nobody believes that American democracy is something that should be taken lightly — but different groups work out of different sets of information.”

That phenomenon is writ large in the district where Mr. Calvert and Mr. Rollins will be competing — and where pugilists on both sides are primed to mobilize.

“The Republican base is going to be fired up over this, and so will the Democratic base,” said Morris P. Fiorina, the political scientist whose Unstable Majorities: Polarization, Party Sorting and Political Stalemate examines the state of contemporary American civic life. “The Republican candidate will be a Trump supporter because it works for him. The Democrat will talk about the end of democracy because they don’t have any other issues to talk about. The other issues in the campaign are all bad for them.”

The latest Quinnipiac Poll showed that Americans believe that the most urgent issue facing the country is inflation — a condition Republicans will lay at the door of President Joe Biden, whose performance on the economy won the approval of only 28% of registered voters, with 64% disapproving. Overall, the president’s approval ratings are at 35%, with 56% disapproving of how he is conducting his presidency — his lowest figures yet.

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Comments

  1. The NAZI DEMOSHITS HAVE LOST THE INDEPENDENT VOTE, THE HISPANICS AND HE IS LOSING BLACK VOTERS AS WE SPEAK…..IN NOVEMBER THE PEOPLE WILL SEND A CLEAR MESSAGE TO THE NAZI DEMOCRAT PARTY THAT SOCIALISM AND OPEN BORDERS WILL MAKE THEM THE EXTINCT PARTY IN NOV AND IN 2024….BYE BYE NAZI’S

  2. Max….I sure hope you’re right, as California conservatives are by far, outnumbered by all these satanic and uneducated, democrat morons. They fail to understand (more like ignore) that democrats are the real “satanic evil” in America for the last 150 years! Slavery, record abortions, record fuel prices, food shortages, men in women’s restrooms and sports, secret sex change operations on children, never a tax cut but more taxes, higher taxes, free speech censorship, spying on citizens, record inflation, business killing regulations, highest crime rates/shootings in democrat run cities, BLM, antifa, racism, white supremacy, KKK, Jim Crow, dishonesty, lying, communism, and sociopathology, and don’t forget voter fraud. Did I leave anything out?

  3. ALSO AGREE 100%

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