Down and Out

The GOP’s Long, Hard Road in California

Republican losses in the Golden State have reached a crisis point. A comeback is possible—if the party’s willing to work for it.

Stephen Lam/Reuters

Consider this state: unemployment is the fourth worst in the nation. When the current incumbent Democratic governor first held the position, 78 percent of the residents rated the state as “one of the best places to live.” Now that’s plummeted to 43 percent. The state’s leading poll finds “By a 54 percent to 35 percent margin, most voters say they prefer lower taxes and fewer government services to higher taxes and more government services.” A leading Democratic candidate for statewide office, a prominent gun control activist, was recently arrested for allegedly trying to sell M-16s and rocket launchers. Yes, rocket launchers.

Now given the above scenario, it would be reasonable to think that Republicans might have at least a decent shot in what looks to be an excellent Republican year. But this is California and Republicans are getting killed.

Republicans in California are like heirs to a vast fortune who have squandered their riches. There was a time, not very long ago, when Republicans were a vital political force steering the direction of California. Of California’s 18 governors in the 20th century, 14 were Republican. From 1952 to 1968, the state went Republican in four out of five Presidential races. It launched Nixon, Reagan, the great populist property tax revolts. In 2003, the public was so angry with Democrat Governor Gray Davis that they recalled him, replacing him with Republican Arnold Schwazenneger.

That seems like another era.

Now Republicans are facing the strong possibility that on June 3, the candidate who faces Jerry Brown will stumble into a general election with under 20 percent of the vote. There are no statewide officeholders.

California has long served as the national launching ground for trends, both large and small, from the dominance of freeways and indoor shopping malls to Apple, Google and yoga. So the most frightening question for national Republicans is the most obvious: is what is happening in California foretelling the future of the national Republican Party?

In 2012, Barack Obama carried 72 percent of California Hispanics (PDF), about his national average. But in California Hispanics comprise 23 percent of the electorate versus just over 12 percent nationally. If you lose 72 percent of 12 percent, you’ve got a real problem; if you lose 72 percent of 23 percent, you have a crisis. And it gets worse: Asians, not Hispanics, are now the fastest growing immigrant group in California at just over 55 percent of all immigrants. And Asians voted at even higher percentages for Obama than Hispanics: 79 percent in California.

That’s bleak.

“Republicans in California are now playing the role of swing voters helping to decide which Democrat will win,” says Bill Carrick, a Democratic political consultant who moved to California years ago from South Carolina. “They are losing the definition of a governing party.”

This Republican decline is in spite of California’s negative economic climate that continues to drive great jobs out of the state. In Los Angeles, where there is a hot Congressional race to replace retiring Henry Waxman, Toyota just announced plans to move 3,000 jobs to Texas. That prompted Democratic candidate Matt Miller to attack one of his opponents, state senator Ted Lieu, who represents the area with the Toyota facility: “How can it be that a relocation of one of our district’s major employers caught state Sen. Ted Lieu and other public officials by surprise?” Miller demanded.

Miller, who is a columnist, radio show host and business consultant, is the sort of Democrat who is, for Republicans, well, dangerous. While Waxman plays to the stereotype of a 1960s liberal, Miller (whom I know and on whose radio show I’ve appeared a couple of times) doesn’t seem to feel the need to pretend that the all is well in the Obama era. After eight years of President Obama, “virtually every measure of a good society that progressives care about (save for expanded health coverage) will be going in the wrong direction,” Miller wrote in his last column for the Washington Post.

While that may seem obvious given the basic facts—fewer full time jobs, 43% more Americans on food stamps, decline in household income —it’s an acknowledgement of reality that appeals to independent voters. And it’s from the rapidly growing pool of independent voters from which the Republican party of California must rebuild.

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Over the last ten years, California Democrats have stayed fairly constant at 44 percent, while Republicans have declined from around 35 percent to under 30 percent. Independents have surged from 15 percent to over 20 percent. It’s a lot easier to reach those independent voters, which include a large number of lapsed Republicans than a base of Democratic voters, many of whom have never voted Republican.

The roadmap back for California Republicans is not complicated, it’s just hard. As the current state party chair Jim Brulte said bluntly, Republicans “have to leave their comfort zone.” The former Republican minority leader in the state Senate sums it up, “We have ceded far too much territory to the Democrats because we’ve failed to show up and even try to compete. And that’s on us.”

Of course showing up is just a start. Once there, Republicans must do a better job of delivering a message that offers an attractive alternative to Democrats. In San Diego, Republican Kevin Faulconer won the San Diego mayor’s race to replace disgraced Democratic mayor Bob Filner, who resigned. He’s now the only Republican mayor in one of the top ten U.S. cities. Two state-wide Republicans have a good shot at winning in November, Pete Peterson for Secretary of State and Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin for Controller, both endorsed by the normally Democratic Los Angeles Times. If Republican Neel Kashkari can make it into the general with Jerry Brown, he’d give Brown fits in debates and, who knows, running against Jerry Brown, the unpredictable is the best prediction.

To win you have to start winning and these very attractive candidates could help form a nucleus to rebuild the Party. Steve Poizner, whom I worked for when he ran for Governor in 2010, and who is currently leading UCLA’s online educational venture, might possibly run again. Meg Whitman, who defeated Poizner in the primary and lost to Jerry Brown, could re-emerge. Both are tremendously talented, smart leaders who have built careers failing, adapting, and then succeeding. Don’t count them out.

As Samuel Johnson said, “when a man knows he is to be hanged … it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Out of this near-death experience, California Republicans might just find a way to help re-invigorate the party, knowing that more of the same is sure defeat. One out of eight Americans is a Californian and it’s always drawn a disproportionate share of innovators and dreamers. Betting against California is never a good bet. In 10 years, this could be seen as one of those painfully necessary periods a Party had to go through to learn hard lessons and come out stronger.

Why not? In California, anything is possible.