Political mobilization efforts in Kern County, combined with pressing national concerns that spurred people to vote, have increased engagement in local elections to the benefit of Democrats and Republicans alike, even as it may have brought them mixed results in individual races.
Increased political involvement is evident in state elections data showing each of the major parties gained registered voters in Kern during the last two years. Local voter turnout then surged in the Nov. 3 general election, which didn't necessarily help incumbents in state and national races.
Political observers see the figures as reflecting local successes in registering new voters and motivating people, especially young adults, to make their voices heard.
They point to two other takeaways: Local political districts are more competitive than they may appear, and neither party can take its traditional support in the county for granted.
Cal State Bakersfield political scientist Ivy Cargile interpreted the numbers as a sign voters are holding politicians accountable for representing the interests of their constituents.
"A democracy should be a competition of ideas," she said. "It should be about who serves the community best."
Numbers posted by the California Secretary of State's office show voter registration is up substantially. In the last two years, the share of eligible Kern residents registered to vote jumped from 73 percent to 80 percent.
During the same period, both major political parties grew their share of total registered voters — but Republicans outpaced Democrats. Republicans' 37 percent of registrations as of 15 days before the Nov. 3 general election was up almost 2 points from the same time in 2018, while Democrats' 34 percent was up less than 1 point. Smaller parties saw their representation slide.
The numbers also show voter turnout in the county increased in 2020 as compared with 2016, the last general election with a presidential contest. Among registered voters, this year's 73 percent was 5 points higher than in 2016.
Unsurprisingly, voting by mail in the county soared. Four years ago, 54 percent of Kern voters mailed in their ballots, compared with 86 percent in 2020. In 2018, it was 65 percent.
It's hard to say what the effects were on individual races, not only because votes are cast for candidates not parties but also, election results are reported on a countywide basis. Still, shifts were noticeable in every one of the county's state and federal election districts.
In the 32nd Assembly District, the incumbent Democrat's margin of victory among voters in Kern increased by 3 points from 2018's general election to reach 71 percent in 2020. Assemblyman Rudy Salas beat Republican challenger Todd Cotta in that race.
In the 34th Assembly District, located entirely in Kern, the incumbent Republican's margin of victory decreased by 3 points from 2018's general election to settle at 68 percent in 2020. In that race, Assemblyman Vince Fong prevailed over Democratic challenger Julie Solis.
A Republican beat out a Democrat by a thin margin in California's 21st Congressional District, which was opposite what happened two years before. Both times, Kern voters favored Rep. T.J. Cox over Republican David Valadao, but the Democrat's margin of victory within the county declined 3 points from 2018 to settle at 58 percent.
In California's 23rd Congressional District, the incumbent Republican, Bakersfield Rep. Kevin McCarthy, saw his margin of victory within the county slip by 2 points from 2018 to hit 64 percent. Federal records also show Democrat Kim Mangone raised more money than any of McCarthy's previous challengers.
INTERPRETING THE DATA
CSUB political scientist Jeanine Kraybill said she wasn't surprised both parties grew their share of registered voters, what with early campaigns to sign people up to vote. And given the county's traditional conservatism, the Republican lead was expected, she added.
She attributed the higher turnout to competitive local races as well as national contests with a lot on the line — the overall direction of the country, the COVID-19 crisis and the economy. It'll be interesting to see whether a similarly large share of voters send in their ballots by mail in the next election, she added.
With regard to individual elections, Kraybill said, the Nov. 3 election results as compared to those from two years ago suggest local districts can't be counted on as solid Republican strongholds. She said parts of the county are politically fluid, more purple than they are red or blue.
McCarthy's strong support for President Donald Trump appears to have hurt him with moderate Republicans and independents, she said, while the Cox-Valadao results show that the district remains politically unsettled.
"This (21st Congressional District contest) will be another race to watch" in 2022, Kraybill said by email, "and though Valadao won it back, the thin margin is not a mandate."
Cargile traced some of this year's election results, including the higher turnout, to 2018 efforts to energize voters unhappy with Trump's leadership. Mobilization efforts continued locally this year, she noted, including among organizations focused on the Hispanic community.
But the mixed registration gains show Hispanic outreach doesn't always yield a Democratic gain, she said, adding, "the Latino-Latinx community isn't a monolith."
Erosion of voter support for incumbents in the county tell her local elections will only become more competitive. She said Republicans "are really going to have to work" to keep winning elections in Kern.
The head of the Kern County Republican Party, Cathy Abernathy, said she was unable to respond to the new numbers.
The chairman of the Kern County Democratic Central Committee, Christian Romo, said increased voter participation in the Nov. 3 general election reflects years of local efforts to engage with people in areas previously overlooked by political parties.
He said the final vote tally in the 23rd Congressional District shows McCarthy is somewhat vulnerable and that, in the 21st Congressional District, the results suggest Democrats have work to do before the 2022 general election, when there won't be a "Trump effect" drawing voters to the polls.
Overall, he interpreted the results as offering his party hope.
"It’s clear that the red wall Kern County has long had is starting to see some cracks and the blue wave is seeping in," Romo said by email.