THE most impressive Democratic gains since before Ronald Reagan was governor have positioned California front and center for the new, Democratic order hoped for by President-elect Clinton and the Democrat-controlled Congress.
Besides the twin triumphs of the largest state's first-ever women senators - Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer - the state congressional delegation gained a 10-seat Democratic edge despite a reapportionment that was supposed to give the GOP its best shot in a decade. Democrats now have a 31 to 21 advantage in California's congressional delegation, which is the largest in United States history.
"The election has put California in the forefront of national clout within the Democratic Party," notes Sherry Jeffe, a political scientist at the Claremont Graduate School. "It was the solid bedrock behind Clinton's winning coalition and now its Democratic senators and [congressional delegation] will cement a continued, central role."
Republican Gov. Pete Wilson must now deal with some of the bitterest defeats of his career. First, voters rejected an initiative that would have given him special powers during budget negotiations. Second, his hand-picked Senate successor, John Seymour (R), lost to Mrs. Feinstein.
Governor Wilson also presided over President Bush's futile campaign in the Golden State. Instead of repeating 1988's success here, an unfocused presidential campaign was blamed for the losses of other state Republicans, including US Senate candidate Bruce Herschensohn, who lost narrowly to Ms. Boxer. Mr. Bush's loss was only the second for a Republican presidential nominee during the past 11 elections in California.
Finally, despite the political savvy Mr. Wilson showed during the 1990 redistricting, his efforts failed to elect more Republicans to the state Legislature. The Democrats actually picked up two more state Assembly seats, giving them a rock-solid, 49-to-31 majority in the lower chamber.
As a result of those setbacks, Wilson is considered to be in the weakest position of any first-term governor in decades. "It's a long time until [he must stand for reelection in] 1994," says Alan Heslop, a professor of government at the Rose Institute in Pomona. "But Pete Wilson will need every minute to recover from these elections."
California Democrats, by contrast, exuded confidence in a Sunday meeting of Western-region congressmen. The L.A. gathering gave new members of the California delegation their first chance to schmooze with congressional leaders, including House Speaker Thomas Foley (D) of Washington.
Hoping to avoid the unfocused approach that has cost California several federal projects in recent years, the new congressmen said they wanted to move quickly to enact such campaign planks as creating jobs, reducing the national debt, repairing the economy, and passing legislation vetoed by President Bush.
The congressional Democrats expressed regret over the early years of the Carter administration, when Democratic gains were slowed by internal party bickering. The new members vowed to cooperate with the Clinton administration.
"We are prepared to hit the ground running," said US Rep. Anna Eshoo, the first Democrat to represent a district spanning San Mateo and Santa Clara counties in northern California.
By approving term limits for the nation's largest congressional delegation, California also has positioned itself for a leading role in the nationwide push for a constitutional amendment to impose congressional term limits.
"Term limits is the issue that will reverberate nationally through the rest of the decade," says Professor Heslop. "Led by California, Congress will be hard put to survive such a monumental attack."
Ironically, he says, those same limits may allow Republicans a way back into the corridors of power in California earlier than expected. "These new term limits insure that all of the current seats will open before the decade is up," Heslop says.