SACRAMENTO — Democratic activists gathering here later this month for their annual state convention most likely will carry the swagger of conquerors, convinced of the justness of their cause and the righteousness of their path to history.

Some may think that to recapture the governor's office in 2010 — and to pick up additional congressional and legislative seats — all they have to do is tap into some of the mojo that President Barack Obama is carrying around with his 66 percent approval rating.

If only politics were so storybook and seamless.

First, there's the question of sustainability. Will Obama still have the magic in 18 months? Even if he does, can California Democrats channel the groove of the most popular man on earth?

John Burton, who is expected to be elected as chairman of the state party at the convention, does not know about mojo or grooves. However, he is convinced that California Democrats' fate will be inextricably tied to Obama's as events unfold over the next year or so — for good or ill.

"It depends on how voters view Obama — how successful the stimulus program is and how people are doing economically," said Burton, who represented San Francisco in both houses of the Legislature before being forced out by term limits in 2005. "It also depends on how quickly we get out of Iraq and whether we get bogged down in Afghanistan. If people are happy with Obama, 2010 will be good for Democrats. If they're not happy, it will make our work that much harder."

It will be a mistake, said Garry South, a Democratic political consultant, for California Democrats to think that a strong national victory presages an automatic win at home.

"Democrats may have a lock on California in national and presidential politics, but we can't extrapolate that somehow all we have to do is put up someone with a pulse and we win," said South, who is working with San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, a prospective gubernatorial candidate who is still officially exploring whether to run. "It's very dubious that any Democratic president, no matter how popular, is gong to preordain election results in California's statewide elections."

South pointed to the devastating results of 1994 as a case in point. Kathleen Brown lost by 15 points in the gubernatorial race to Pete Wilson, only two years after Bill Clinton, a 40-something Democrat who inspired hope in young voters, captured the presidency, carrying California by double digits over President George H.W. Bush.

In 2006, when Democrats recaptured Congress and the U.S. Senate — perhaps the biggest turnaround since 1974 in the wake of Watergate — their candidate, Phil Angelides, lost by 17 points.

Over the past 110 years, Democrats have held the governorship for only 25 years.

Still, they are in an undeniably enviable position, political experts said.

"Obama's election has improved the Democratic brand very significantly," said Dan Schnur, a former adviser to Gov. Pete Wilson who now directs the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. "On most policy matters, Democrats enjoy an advantage they haven't had for years. The recession combined with Obama's election has presented tremendous long-term opportunities for Democrats."

Obama's success in Republican-held districts in California could signal more Democratic gains in the Legislature and Congress, said Allen Hoffenblum, co-editor of the California Target Book, which analyzes state races. Obama won the vote in several Republican-held districts, including eight of 19 Congressional districts, five of 15 GOP state senate districts and 12 of 29 Assembly districts.

As of March 20, Democratic registration is 44.6 percent statewide, compared to 31.1 percent for Republicans and 20 percent for those who decline to state a party. The Democrats' 13.5 percent margin over Republicans has grown from an 8 point margin in 2005.

Alameda County has the highest concentration of registered Democratic voters, with 58 percent, compared to 22.5 percent registered as Decline to State and 15 percent as Republican. Contra Costa County has a breakdown of 50 percent Democrats, 26.3 percent Republican, and 19.4 percent Decline to State.

"Because of a nose-dive in Republican registration, their seats are no longer safe," Hoffenblum said. "Republican incumbents now have to win crossover votes from decline to state voters and Democrats to win. Let's put it this way. Democrats have an overwhelming advantage in registration, money and enthusiasm against a Republican party whose registration is dropping like a rock, and they're squabbling amongst themselves with recalls. It's a stark contrast."

However, the passion that drove Democrats in 2008 will be tough to replicate in statewide races in 2010. For one, voters' cry for change is being dealt with at the national level. For another, the problems of California — such as fixing the budget process — are more mundane.

"The budget crisis is not the war in Iraq," said Darry Sragow, a Democratic consultant.

But Democrats are taking note of how the nation is embracing Obama's activist approach on the economy "and trying to figure out if there's a play to be made here." Sragow said. "The successful gubernatorial campaign will be one that takes that Obama story and alters it to fit California."

Economic distress, observers say, gives Democrats a wide advantage over Republicans, who are seen as too close to corporations, banks and CEOs who have engendered widespread populist resentment over the tales of greed and corruption that emerged out of the Bush era.

"It's not that the Democrats are necessarily doing great," said Jack Pitney, government professor at Claremont McKenna College. "It's that the Republicans are still wounded. 'R' remains the scarlet letter."

Obama's election was a message to Republicans that "voters won't tolerate their small government philosophy," said Robin Torello, the chairwoman of the Alameda County Democratic Party. "And it was to say that they are looking to people who think government can be for the good. People are rejecting the Republican philosophy because they have to rely on government more than ever now."

Obama's agenda of an activist government could be seen as a fertilizer for the kind of politics that could take hold across the country, especially in a state like California, said Bill Carrick, a Democratic consultant.

"Presidencies define the politics of a generation," he said. "If you have a president who sustains his popularity for two years, the incumbent party holds up. A popular Democratic president means more Democrats being elected."

That is, unless ornery California voters decide otherwise.

Reach Steven Harmon at 916-441-2101 or sharmon@bayareanewsgroup.com.

Democrats are on the rise in California
Statewide registration, as of March 20
  • Democrats: 7.7 million (44.6 percent, up from 42.8 percent in September 2005)
  • Republicans: 5.3 million (31.1 percent, down from 34.8 percent in September 2005)
  • Decline to State: 3.4 million (20 percent, up from 18 percent in September 2005)

    The California State Democratic Party's annual convention
  • When: April 24-26
  • Where: Sacramento Convention Center
  • Purpose: To elect party officials, including the chairperson
  • How many: 1,850 delegates expected, along with 800 volunteers and 400 others
  • Speakers: Former Democratic National Commitee Chairman Howard Dean, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein