State of resistance no more California on sidelines of Trump ballot fight

Trump will appear on the March 5 primary ballot, the California Secretary of State announced late Thursday.

California Democrats have shown little interest in elbowing their way to the front of the legal movement to keep former President Donald Trump off the ballot next year, despite the state once relishing the role as his chief antagonist.

It’s a marked shift from Trump’s presidency, when Democrats in the state took an all-hands approach to obstructing his administration, even passing a law that would have effectively booted Trump from the 2020 ballot. It was later overturned by the courts.

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But with voting rights and defending democracy now a rallying cry for Democrats nationwide, kicking Trump off the ballot has become far more politically fraught. California politicians are split over how assertively to act, far from their unanimous Trump opposition a few years ago. Colorado and Maine have emerged as the blue state vanguards in the effort to disqualify him from running, leaving California on the sidelines and Trump on its ballot.

“It’s a different calculus now,” said Jessica A. Levinson, a professor of constitutional and California election law at Loyola Law School. “This isn’t a question about immigration or reproductive rights,” she added. “This is a question about, ‘Do we let the voters decide?’”

The debate among California Democrats played out in unusually public fashion after the Colorado Supreme Court last week ruled that Trump was ineligible to run for president due to his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection. Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis exhorted fellow Democrat Secretary of State Shirley Weber in a letter to “explore every legal option” to similarly remove Trump from the ballot.

Kounalakis, who is running for governor in 2026, did not give advance notice about the letter to either Weber or Gov. Gavin Newsom, officials in those two offices said. The reception was notably chilly from the fellow Democrats.

Newsom dismissed attempts to pile-on as a “political distraction,” stating that in California, “we defeat candidates at the polls.” A Newsom adviser, who was granted anonymity to speak freely about the subject, said that Kounalakis’ strategy could end up backfiring.

“If we act out of sequence here and proactively move to get him off the ballot, that could end up weakening the institutions you’re trying to protect,” the adviser said.

Weber, meanwhile, responded to Kounalakis in a chippy letter, reiterating her position that the courts should resolve any Trump ballot eligibility challenges. “I must place the sanctity of these elections above partisan politics,” Weber wrote to Kounalakis. She added, “If you would like to be further informed on this issue, I invite you to contact me directly.”

Late Thursday, Weber announced Trump would appear on the March 5 primary ballot.

Aleksandra Reetz, Kounalakis’ deputy chief of staff, downplayed the back-and-forth, saying, “honest people can have honest disagreements.” She also praised elections officials in Maine and Colorado for “honoring our rule of law” and helping to build the legal case for keeping Trump off the ballot.

Kounalakis was not the only Democrat in the state seeking to bar Trump from running on constitutional grounds. Assemblymember Evan Low in September sent a letter to Attorney General Rob Bonta, signed by 11 state lawmakers, urging him to use his powers as the state’s top lawyer to expedite a ruling on Trump’s eligibility. Bonta never responded.

“Now, all of a sudden, we want to not be assertive and not enforce the law. Republicans do not play fair,” Low told POLITICO in an interview Friday. “We play too nice. To me, this is foolish.”

State Sen. Dave Min, an Orange County Democrat running for a swing congressional seat, proposed a bill inspired by the Colorado ruling that would let Californians sue to block ineligible candidates from the ballot.

The missives from Kounalakis, Low and Min recalled the combative California vs. Washington dynamic that defined Trump’s White House tenure.

It began immediately after Election Night in 2016, when California Democrats positioned their state as his primary adversary, declaring they would be “the keeper of the nation’s future.”

A flood of anti-Trump measures followed. Then-Attorney General Xavier Becerra sued the administration more than 100 times, contesting a range of issues including environmental regulations, immigration policy and plans for conducting the 2020 census.

The deluge carried over to the state Capitol, where lawmakers introduced reams of bills blasting Trump and safeguarding state laws and regulations from federal encroachment. Some were deliberately provocative, such as the legislation to bar presidential and gubernatorial candidates from the ballot if they did not release their tax returns, as Trump notoriously refused to do.

Then-Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the tax-returns proposal, arguing it was unconstitutional and would set off a “slippery slope” of requirements for the ballot. Newsom signed an identical bill into law in 2019, but months later, the California Supreme Court overturned it.

“That was California trying to poke the bear,” Levinson, the Loyola professor, said of the 2019 law. Now, she said, Weber is navigating thornier territory — whether Trump has violated the so-called “insurrection clause” of the 14th Amendment and is therefore unable to run for president.

“It’s an entirely rational decision just to wait for the U.S. Supreme Court,” Levinson said.

Even California Rep. Barbara Lee, a progressive who is part of a lawsuit against Trump for his role on Jan. 6, saw wisdom in Weber’s move.

“Everyone — even Donald Trump — deserves their day in court. If we hope to strengthen and sustain our democracy, no Secretary of State should unilaterally decide who can appear on a ballot,” Lee said in a statement to POLITICO. “I have full faith that the voters of California will once again reject Trump’s politics of hate and division and look forward to seeing the former president soundly defeated in 2024.”