Making Sense of California’s 2020 Elections

California Donor Table
6 min readDec 8, 2020
2020 CDT- supported winning candidates

Widespread opinion of California’s election is that it was a progressive disaster. But that is not accurate. We must set the record straight about the progressive local and regional candidate and initiative wins we can claim across California. Here is what actually happened.

Californians showed their power at the ballot box. California has counted almost 18 million votes, more than 9 percent of all the votes cast for president country-wide. Our turnout was 80.7 percent, a percentage not met since 1964. This kind of deep and wide voter participation in an election where California’s contribution to the top of the ticket was secure is a great testament to the investments in voter engagement that’s been expanding in California for more than a decade now.

Local initiative results were great, including strong criminal justice reform measures winning in LA County, requiring at least 10% of the county’s unrestricted funds to go to community investments and alternatives to incarceration. San Diego created the strongest independent police review commission in the state. Other wins include a strong environmental measure taxing oil to fund racial justice programs in Long Beach, youth voting for school board members initiative passing in Oakland, and SF passing local initiatives for small business relief, rent relief and public housing, and a second-in-the-nation disproportionate CEO Pay Tax.

State legislative results were good to great, with three of the four California Donor Table (CDT) endorsed candidates winning their races: 25th District Assemblymember-elect Democratic Socialist Alex Lee, who will represent Fremont, Santa Clara, San Jose, Milpitas and Newark; and progressive State Senator-elects Susan Talamantes Eggman, representing the Central Valley’s 5th Senate District, and Dave Cortese, representing District 15, including Campbell, Cupertino, Los Gatos, Monte Sereno, San Jose and Saratoga. Losses include CDT and our partners Voices for Progress endorsed state Senate candidate Abigail Medina. The Senate is now 31 Democrats and 9 Republicans. The Assembly is now 60 Democrats, 19 Republicans, and one No Party Preference. More importantly, the State Senate Democratic Caucus became more progressive, and the Assembly Democratic Caucus became potentially slightly less liberal.

Local wins were plentiful — with a few exceptions: In the country’s most populous county, progressive reformer George Gascón beat the incumbent Democratic Los Angeles District Attorney, and “moral compass of the state legislature” Holly J. Mitchell won a seat to make the LA County Board of Supervisors all women. These and other wins, like Nithya Raman in LA City Council, portend a growing progressive movement in LA that is being driven by leaders from communities of color and diverse coalitions of organizations committed to building progressive political power in California’s largest county.

In California’s second largest county, San Diego, the 4–1 Republican Board of Supervisor supermajority was broken, and now is a 3–2 progressive Democratic majority. Liberals and progressives won for mayor, including Todd Gloria in San Diego, and Farrah Khan in Irvine. Progressives won many city council seats across the state, including Carrol Fife in Oakland, Connie Chan in San Francisco, Claudia Jimenez in Richmond, Tamisha Walker in Antioch, Suely Saro in Long Beach, and Jessie Lopez in Santa Ana, all progressive women of color. California Donor Table-funded groups roted in Black, Latino and AAPi communities like Engage San Diego Action Fund, Orange County Civic Engagement Table Action, San Francisco Rising Action Fund, Lift Up Contra Costa Action, Bay Rising Action, Imagine Justice PAC and Working Families for Holly Mitchell, and the statewide CA Working Families Party powered many of those victories.

In San Diego, a new progressive Board of Supervisor majority, a Democratic mayor, and major city initiative win on police accountability means that for the first time, California’s second largest county and city can and will pursue progressive governance.

In Los Angeles County, local organizing groups are shifting from opposition and accountability work to ‘governing with” to make the most of these progressive candidate wins. Progressive elected officials must collaborate with the groups to both propose, pass and implement policies and practices at scale.

In Contra Costa, coming off the first successful community-centered District Attorney campaign in California in 2018, organizers won across the board, not just in the progressive bastion of Richmond, but also the Antioch City Council and the Pittsburgh School Board. Key leaders of color there too are working to take advantage of their political wins.

Losses include progressive Stockton Mayor Michael Stubbs, Rhodesia Ransom in her bid for the San Joaquin Board of Supervisors, and Sergio Contreras’ bid to be the 2nd Democrat on the Orange County Board of Supervisors.

With the exception of a few bright spots, initiatives were bought with a record amount of corporate money. Wins were few but significant in the people’s mandate to reform the criminal legal system, most notably with the passage of Prop 17, which expands voting rights for people on parole. Losses on funding schools and communities, affirmative action, rent control, and labor rights demonstrated the power of corporate money to seed doubt and confusion, leading to voters to vote against the best interests of the majority of California. Prop 15, which would have closed the Prop 13 commercial property tax loophole, was outspent 2 to 1 by corporate real estate, and a progressive split on Prop 25, means the cash bail ban passed by the legislature will be repealed.

Congressional races were bad — with a caveat — Democrats lost three congressional seats that were flipped in 2018 — two in Orange County, and one in the San Joaquin Valley. Democrats also lost the open seat in San Diego, and didn’t retake a seat in Los Angeles County. Overall, Republicans gained four seats, resulting in a 42 Democrat, 11 Republican state congressional split.

These setbacks come after crucial wins delivered for Democratic congressional majorities from San Diego and the Inland Empire in 2012, and then from Orange County, San Diego and the Central Valley in 2018. Where we held seats are regions where year round organizing efforts were led and funded.

The caveat: even with four losses California’s congressional split remains heavily Democratic. California’s congressional split went from 86 percent Democratic to 80 percent. While that might disappoint many, that’s higher than the Democratic majorities in Illinois, New York, and many other blue states, and even higher than our own state legislative Democratic supermajority, which is at 76 percent.

What does it all mean?

Previous right wing initiatives on taxes, affirmative action and other issues shackle California’s progressive electorate, and liberal state constitutional officers, legislature and many regional and local governments. As the legislature passes more liberal if not progressive legislation, moneyed interests will double down on using the state initiative process to protect their profits.

For progressives to win, we must continue expanding our wins at the local levels; continue to grow progressive leadership at the state level; and most importantly, go all in on community-based organizing, advocacy, leadership development, all towards a progressive policy agenda. We know that direct and creative voter contact — not just more TV and mail — builds power to win elections and pass policies.

Opportunities for funders

Progressive funders should not let state initiative and congressional losses overshadow these wins, nor miss the immediate co-governing opportunities they create. Funders need to move immediately to build progressive co-governing infrastructure at the local, regional and state levels taking advantage of these wins. That means funding things like*:

  • Staffing for community organizations to co-govern with newly elected progressives, and help incubate a statewide progressive governing cohort to share learnings
  • Staffing for regional Local Progress chapters to support newly elected progressive officials to govern effectively
  • More robustly staffing Boards and Commissions Leadership Institutes in key regions where there are elected officials who want to appoint progressives
  • Funding California Budget and Policy Center to add county level budget analysis to support progressive budget advocacy
  • Funding regional civic engagement and governing groups like Orange County Civic Engagement Table, Alliance San Diego, Communities for a New California, Inland Empowerment, San Francisco Rising, Lift Up Contra Costa, and the emerging civic engagement collaboration in Los Angeles as starting places
  • Funding the Building the California Dream Alliance, a statewide coalition of progressive advocates and lobbyist committed to passing bold legislation in Sacramento
  • Funding the state legislative Progressive Caucus, via recently re-elected Asm. Reggie Jones-Sawyer

*For all of these recommendations, please contact for more information.

In addition, California cannot continue to be the Democratic congressional well that produces nationally required in-state wins while simultaneously being the bank for Democrats nationally. To win more in California, we need more of our political investments to stay in-state.

Now is the time to set our sights on the many transitions and appointments that can lead to progressive outcomes, but only if we begin making it clear to these newly elected leaders how we expect them to govern. By doing this we can focus on what we know is possible in California — making real a vision where all people have fair and equal access to health, prosperity, and justice.

Written by Ludovic Blain, Executive Director of the California Donor Table



California Donor Table

The California Donor Table is a statewide community of donors who pool their funds to make investments in communities of color so they have the power they need.