News Analysis

By Drew Phelps

After moderating a discussion with Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom at the California Economic Summit in San Diego, former Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin clarified her intentions – or lack of – to run for statewide office in 2018.

Recognized by many as one of the most electable Republicans for statewide office in California, Swearengin’s status within her party stoked curiosity about the possibility of a follow-up to her competitive, but ultimately unsuccessful 2014 campaign for state controller.

Though she spoke up in December 2016, stating simply, “I am firmly not planning to run,”  and told GV Wire the same in March, some observers still considered her candidacy for a higher office, like governor or senator, a possibility.

Now, she leaves little doubt about her plans for the 2018 election. “There was never any real consideration from me,” she said Thursday. “The things I care about, the work I am doing in the Central Valley, is probably best pursued in the work I am doing right now.”

Though likely driven by personal interest – a desire for stability in her current position leading the Central Valley Community Foundation seems to be her public motivation – the decision also undoubtedly includes a level of political calculation.

It’s Tough Being a California Republican

In the current political climate, which she labels “really crazy right now,” California’s voting population has made a noticeable shift left. Apart from the clear decline of Republican registration in the state since Swearengin’s last run (28.1% of voters in 2014 compared to 25.9% today, the lowest level since the 1980s), sentiment among the majority of Democrats has become less moderate as well.

As evidenced by the serious consideration granted the half-cooked single-payer health care bill, the numerous tax-heavy policies, and other considerably progressive policies emerging from the legislature this past year, it is apparent that Californians are electing more left-leaning representatives and ensuring that they are held to those progressive policies. If they fail their constituents in this push left, they are liable to face backlash: Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon received death threats for unilaterally halting the aforementioned single-payer plan.

This trend, amplified by the Trump presidency (8% of Democrats approve of his performance), makes it nearly impossible for Republicans to perform well in statewide elections. For Swearengin, who is a moderate but still sports an ‘R’ next to her name on the ballot, the numbers do not play favorably.

Will Swearengin Become a Democrat?

Some commentators, citing her work on environmental policy and other moderate positions, have hypothesized that, in order to seek higher office further down the road, she may switch parties and become a Democrat or nonpartisan.

However, there are issues that may preclude this path as well. For example, past examinations have shown that “party-switchers” are not especially successful in their efforts.

Swearengin also faces challenges in the sense that significant portions of her past campaign funds have come from staunchly conservative donors. Though not her only source of campaign cash, these hard-line Central Valley Republicans have formed the foundation upon which she has built past campaigns. A change of affiliation this deep into her career may alienate those donors and force Swearengin to cultivate a new base from which to draw funds.

Granted, her moderate work with progressive groups may make that process easier, but she would still likely be set back in a challenge against a strong, established Democrat that a high-stakes race for governor or senator would attract.

Swearengin Ready When Voters Return to the Middle

Swearengin believes she is properly positioned to take advantage of a return to the center, which she sees as likely.

“Our statewide political system is very near the point of breaking, in my opinion, and we’re going to have to have different types of people, different types of solutions than those who just come from a partisan perspective, whether right or left,” she said.

All in all, Swearengin’s announcement does not come as much of a surprise. It is difficult to predict whether she will ever truly consider seeking higher office, but, given the scope of her past public service, it is not unlikely.

Her political path forward is narrow, but her name recognition and the “crazy” nature of partisanship in California help keep her slim hopes alive.

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