GOP Gains in California May Not Be as Implausible as Commonly Believed

CA GOP

Chairman Jim Brulte leads a meeting at the California Republican Party convention.

It almost qualifies as one of the more unexpected headlines in recent memory. “CAN THE CALIFORNIA REPUBLICAN PARTY BOUNCE BACK IN 2018?” asked the Los Angeles Times in late February. Who would expect the GOP ever to re-emerge in California? Yet that such a question was even asked by a member of the state’s single-party media is meaningful. Maybe something is stirring within this seemingly permanent minority.

A mere stir won’t be enough, though: the political equivalent of a Home Depot paint mixer will be required. The Golden State is the deepest blue of the 20 states that Hillary Clinton won: 62 percent of California voters cast their ballots for her, the highest percentage of any state. Using data from the IBD/TIPP poll, Investor’s Business Daily’s John Merline wrote in December that “if you take California out of the popular vote equation, then (Donald) Trump wins the rest of the country by 1.4 million votes. And if California voted like every other Democratic state — where Clinton averaged 53.5 percent wins — Clinton and Trump end up in a virtual popular vote tie.”

Not that this outcome was any great surprise. California has been a one-party state for what seems like a geologic era. The only chamber of the state Legislature that hasn’t been under Democratic Party control in the last four decades is the Senate. The GOP held it by a slim two seats in 1995–1996. The last time the Republicans held at least one chamber before that was in 1969–1970, when Ronald Reagan was governor and the GOP had two-seat majorities in both the Assembly and Senate. Since Reagan’s stint in Sacramento, there have been three Republican governors (and was Arnold Schwarzenegger truly a Republican?) and three Democratic governors (including Jerry Brown twice). Only six Republicans, one of them Schwarzenegger, have held statewide seats since 1998. Democrats have held 23.

It’s a similar story with California’s representation in Congress. The House of Representatives has been prime Democratic property since the late 1950s, with a 26-26 tie in the state’s congressional delegation in 1995–1996 being the only exception. Since then, the spread has increased steadily to reach 38 Democrats, 14 Republicans, and one vacant seat — that of Xavier Becerra, now the state’s attorney general — though some might say that the real attorney general is Eric Holder, the former Obama AG hired by the Legislature to lead the state’s Trump resistance. California has not sent a Republican to the Senate since Pete Wilson, having won the governorship, appointed John Seymour to serve the final two years (1991-1992) of his term in Washington.

Only 27.3 percent of California voters are registered as Republicans. That’s the smallest sliver for the GOP since 1980, the year of the Reagan revolution. Republicans have even lost San Bernardino County, a longtime GOP stronghold in California’s flyover country, with registered Democrats there now outnumbering Republicans.

Republicans deserve a healthy portion of the blame for their marginalization. In the early 2000s, they colluded with Democrats to redraw districts in a scheme that ensures that few seats are competitive and for the most part gives both parties perpetual possession of the seats they hold. This makes it nigh-on impossible for Republicans to unseat Democratic politicians.

And too often, Republicans are hard to distinguish from Democrats anyway. Stephen Frank, an editor for the California Political Review, complained a few years ago that the GOP establishment has “run candidates without serious ideology — except the desire to win election,” and recalled a 2013 legislative surrender in which Democrats got the votes they needed in Sacramento from the GOP to extend $2.3 billion a year in vehicle taxes. More recently, Frank said that if “you stand for nothing” as a party, “you’ll cease to exist.”

Democrats have the state sewn up not only through their safe districts but also through a constituent bloc that will vote them back into office again and again. Those on the lower end of the economic ladder tend to support Democrats and their redistributionist agenda. In 2014, Pew Research showed that 51 percent of Californians earning less than $30,000 a year are Democrats or lean toward the party (22 percent are Republicans/leans); 53 percent earning between $30,000 and $49,999 a year are Democrats/leans (30 percent are Republicans/leans). In return for their party loyalty, the poor Californians who vote Democratic are robbed of economic opportunities by Blue State public policy.

Those at the top also have a role in perpetuating Democratic power. Pew says that 49 percent of Californians earning more than $100,000 annually are Democrats or lean that way, while only 39 percent identify with the GOP. According to Political Data Inc., the gap closes somewhat for those earning more than $500,000 a year. But Democrats still hold a 38-33 edge there.

Given these facts, it’s baffling why anyone, even the most optimistic Republican operative, could imagine that the party might “bounce back” in California. The reason for many is simple: Donald Trump. These Republicans believe that they can emulate on the state level what Trump achieved nationally. One key to the GOP’s resurgence lies in between the economic extremes that support the Democrats and is primarily inland from the posh coastal districts. It’s a shrinking middle class at odds with the ruling party over water, climate, energy production, immigration, infrastructure priorities, housing, economic policies and the environment. Enough polarization exists to lead some to believe that the state needs to be split — not in two parts but in six.

Frank believes that the state’s minorities can also play a role if the Republican Party has the courage to show them how Democrats have “destroyed their hopes” and condemned them to “poverty and dependence.”

Some Democrats are considering the possibility that the Trump phenomena could carry over to California. “If we didn’t get a wake-up call from what happened in the rest of the country, then shame on us,” David Townsend, a Democratic strategist, told Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton after the election. Skelton, no Republican apologist, acknowledged that Democrats have been “paying little attention to the middle class.”

So maybe there is an opening. As GOP consultant Ray McNally told Skelton, “power really does corrupt,” which could mean that the Democrats, with all their raw political muscle in California, are vulnerable to making the fatal mistakes that can happen when politicians believe they’ve become too powerful to pay for the consequences of their actions.