With the 2020 elections over, staunch politicos now turn to the 2022 primaries. Too early, you say? Money never sleeps, and the same applies in politics. Both politics in general and political money. Thus opposition coalitions must start thinking strategically about which races to focus on and which candidates to back/recruit.
In coming months, this publication will discuss many of these local races, but today we start with two less obvious offices where a more conservative incumbent Democrat could be ripe for strong opposition from his left.
These are the adjacent State Assembly districts 8 and 9 represented by Ken Cooley and Jim Cooper, respectively. District 8 stretches from Citrus Heights in the north south through Arden-Arcade, Rancho Cordova and Vineyard to the Sacramento County border. District 9 stretches from southern Sacramento down through Elk Grove into Lodi in San Joaquin County.
Cooley and Cooper have many similarities. Both are more conservative, old-school, business-backed Democrats. Both are known for their lack of couth at times, and both are on track to handily beat their general election Republican opponents because of large Democratic advantages in both districts.
Furthermore, voters who supported the Presidential campaigns of either Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren represent the largest part of the Democratic primary base in both districts: in the 42% to 43% range, inclusive of independents who crossed over to ledge a presidential primary ballot. (For more about the “S+W” Sanders-Warren metric, click here.) This provides a solid starting base for an opposition candidate to the incumbents’ left to make Top 2 in a primary.
Let’s examine both races in greater detail.
District 9 – Jim Cooper
Because Cooley faced Democratic primary competition in 2020, the “contestable” argument is more directly made here. Two things are worth noting. First in the primary, little of the No Party Preference-Independent vote went to his Republican opponent. This indicates a very low 30% ceiling for the GOP, and Cooper’s biggest threat coming from his left.
Second, Cooper’s main Democratic opponent in the March primary, Tracie Stafford, fell short of making the Top Two runoff by just 6,000 votes. Clearly with more organized support from local Progressives, Labor and Environment, and a stronger ground effort with signs and canvassing, Stafford can easily make up this gap, if she runs again, to make Top 2.
The more interesting question comes in the general election. If a second Democrat joins Cooper in the Top Two, what’s the general election pathway to victory for that candidate?
In my opinion, it first must be recognized that Cooper’s core of support is institutional and business-based. Thinks makes him richer in campaign cash than with a large army of loyal voters. Second, the Democratic Party breaks down into three discreet groups:
Progressives, who voted for Sanders-Warren;
Moderate Dems, who are pro-corporate welfare but not largely for the $15 minimum wage, policing reforms, or aggressively combatting global warming;
And in between, the Middle of the Road Dems, whose hearts in recent years favor Progressive issues, but whose heads still convince them to vote more conservatively.
This how the groups breakdown nationally, and these same distributions generally apply to the AD8 and AD9. (Again, see full story here.)
If a candidate solidly to Cooper’s left can avoid coming off as a fire-and-brimstone Progressive, then a solid chance exists to win a large number of middle-road Dems and at least half of the Independent vote. If this can be done, then Cooper’s only general election pathway is to win all the Republican vote, which is approximately double the size of Cooper’s Mod Dem voting base.
But this would then allow Cooper’s Democratic opponent to portray him as the clear Republican choice who favors Republican positions on working class pay, policing reforms and fighting climate change. This cycle he also backed Proposition 20 to reverse criminal justice reforms, which received major financial backing from Republican Rep. Devin Nunes.
Beating an incumbent is never easy, but it starts by recognizing an actual pathway to victory. That possibility exists in the AD9, and if Tracie Stafford runs again, she has the additional advantage of running with a full primary season of name recognition in the district to build upon.
District 8 – Ken Cooley
In District 8, very similar things can be said here about the moderate five-term incumbent Ken Cooley. On the one hand, demographically, Cooley perhaps is slightly more vulnerable to his left than Cooper. This is because of the slightly higher percentage of Warren and Sanders voters in the district, and lower overall Democratic voter registration than in the AD9.
However, Cooley’s intra-party strengths and weaknesses have never been tested in a primary by another Democrat. He has also been a prodigious fundraiser in the past, taking almost equally from business and labor interests which befits his moderate profile.
He’s regularly backed by local labor, and Sacramento Central Labor backs a lot of moderate Dems with average voting records. But given Labor has never been given a Democratic choice, there may be an opening here. For instance, he has averaged just a 79% labor rating last cycle on labor issues.
Last at his age of 67, the case can be made for a younger Democrat and a stronger supporter of labor. And if a 2022 challenge is not successful, this sets could set the challenger up for 2024 when term limits forces Cooley to step down. His strongest base of votes is Rancho Cordova, where he also served as a mayor and city council member.