State Senator Abel Maldonado was nominated by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to the lieutenant governorship to replace John Garamendi, who was recently elected to the US House of Representatives. After confirmation in the Senate by a 26-7 vote, a vote in the full State Assembly is going to happen today, after the Rules Committee forwarded his nomination to the full house without a recommendation. His confirmation is by no means assured.

Despite support from the Republican Governor and Democratic Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg, Maldonado faces a very difficult confirmation. Democrats accuse him of being too conservative. At the same time, the influential California Republican Assembly recently called for his defeat.

Can they both be right? Can Maldonado be simultaneously liberal and conservative? Yes. But only in California!

In a series of recent posts, I showed a plot putting state legislatures and their parties on a common scale. I was able to compare how liberal or conservative these legislatures were over the past decade and a half or so, and also how polarized they were. I measured polarization as the distance between the centers (medians) of the two parties, and I compared these legislatures to the US Congress (which many people these days claim is so polarized it can barely function).


California stands out in that plot for its polarized nature. Democrats in California are really, really liberal. And Republicans are really, really conservative. The state legislature as a whole is very liberal, because of the dominance of the Democrats in this time period. This is in contrast to other liberal state legislatures that aren’t particularly polarized: for example, New York, New Jersey, Massachussetts, Hawaii, Connecticut. There, Democrats are liberal, and Republicans are, too (like Scott Brown).

And, as I mentioned in piece published in the Sacramento Bee, California’s polarization makes Congress’ polarization look like “tiddlywinks.”

California’s polarized legislature has been well known and studied (here’s a great book on the topic by Seth Masket at the University of Denver, or UCSD’s Thad Kousser), but this is the first time we can make these sorts of comparisons. The state really does stand out.

Back to the matter at hand. Maldonado is a very curious sort of Republican in California. We’ve known from his voting record that he’s a maverick in the party. For example, a year ago, Maldonado switched his vote to support a budget plan that had been agreed to by Democratic leaders and the Governor, but opposed by nearly every Republican.

But exactly how liberal or conservative is he? My research, along with Princeton’s Nolan McCarty, allows us to estimate very precisely the ideology of individual state legislators across the country. To do so, I use the entirety of 50 state legislative voting records, and I make them comparable by calibrating them through Project Votesmart’s candidate surveys.

And our ideological scoring system places him at 0.47. Looking at the plot above, you can visually see that he’s at the leftmost end of the Republican party distribution in California. Actually, he’s in the most liberal 3rd percentile in the party. That is, 97% of all Republicans who have served between 1993 and 2006 in either the Assembly or the Senate are more conservative than him.

But his voting record is only that liberal in a state like California’s. He’s by far more conservative than even the most right-wing Democrat in the state. And if you sweep your eyes up the plot from the leftmost “whisker” of the Republican party in the state, you’ll see that California Republican liberals are largely mainstream (if only slightly center-left) Republicans elsewhere. For a comparison, Maldonado is far more conservative than Scott Brown, who scores at –0.17.

It is perhaps not surprising that Governor Schwarzenegger, who’s fairly moderate himself, would nominate a Republican like Maldonado. I’ll leave it to others to figure out the strategic games. But I’ll only note that California Democrats can’t hope to find a more suitable Republican – something the relatively liberal Los Angeles Times editorial page has figured out.

To sum up, Senator Maldonado is simultaneously liberal (to California Republicans), conservative (to California Democrats), and moderate (compared with Republicans in the rest of the country). Again … only in California.

Update 2/12/10 — Sorry, comments were turned off for some reason … They’re back on now.