California’s Republican Party was once a force to be feared, not only in the state, but across the country. Nowadays, it’s at most a mild irritant and sometimes a convenient whipping boy for the Democratic progressives, who run the state almost entirely. Nothing is working much for the GOP this year. The Republican gubernatorial candidate, John Cox, has little charisma, no discernible local roots, and no compelling message. He sneaked into the runoff election because too many Democrats vied for the job. He’ll be thrashed by Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, likely by a wide margin. As governor, Newsom will probably preside over a legislative super-majority that will marginalize the Republicans even further.
The Senate race is no bargain, either, for conservatives and even moderates. The choice is between octogenarian incumbent Senator Dianne Feinstein and Kevin De Leon, leader of the state senate and proxy for ultra-green mega-donor Tom Steyer. Worse yet, at least for the national GOP, California would see as many as six or seven California congressional seats flip to the Democrats. Most are in traditional Republican strongholds like Orange and San Diego counties, where longtime voter-registration trends are transforming the electorate. In Orange County, for example, party registration levels are now about equal; in 2004, the GOP held a 14 percent edge.
California’s one-party shift happened quickly. As recently as a decade ago, a nominal Republican, Arnold Schwarzenegger, sat in the governor’s mansion, and Republicans in the legislature retained some influence. The roots of the Republican collapse lie largely in demographics. The GOP base—made up mostly of white, middle-class voters—is shrinking. In the last decade, California’s white population declined by more than 700,000 people, while the Hispanic population surged by more than 2 million, and Asians by 1 million. At the same time, according to IRS figures, those leaving the state tended to be working-class and middle-class families, with the biggest net losses among the prime child-bearing cohort, those between 35 and 44 years of age—a natural Republican constituency.
To win in today’s California, you must appeal to non-whites. In 2012, the California electorate was about half non-Hispanic white; by 2030, that ratio will drop closer to 40 percent. Some Republicans, particularly Asians in Orange County, have made breakthroughs and dominate local offices. But when it comes to national issues, Asians, despite their relative wealth and opposition to affirmative action in college admissions, remain reliable members of the Democrats’ “rainbow” coalition of aggrieved racial minorities. In 1998, the percentage of Asians nationwide identifying with Democrats was 53 percent; today, it’s 65 percent.
Economic changes have also worked to progressives’ advantage. California’s growth engine, once dispersed across the state, has become concentrated in the ultra-liberal Bay Area. As more conservative-leaning industries such as energy, manufacturing, and suburban homebuilding have faltered, media, software, and medical services, all tending to lean Left, have expanded. This shift has also tilted the power of money in the state decisively, with Democrats regularly outspending their GOP opponents across the state. In the state’s critical House races, the ratio is greater than two-to-one. An economy increasingly bifurcated between a sizeable high-wage population and an ever-expanding cadre of low-paid service workers works brilliantly to the advantage of the ruling regime. If the tech giants continue earning capital gains to keep the state fiscally viable, Sacramento can offer more subsidies, and other inducements, to the permanently poor.
But not all the woes of the California GOP stem from inexorable outside forces. The party has been misguided in continuing to focus on issues like taxes and crime that voters don’t find as compelling as they did 20 years ago. There are, however, real concerns about the economy, particularly as it affects millennials and the generation following them, who are finding homeownership, or even landing a job with decent pay, a challenge. According to one 2017 survey, every age group in California thought that the next generation would do worse, though people in their late forties and older—with children and grandchildren—were most pessimistic. Yet neither Cox nor any other Republican has made a strong, coherent case against the state’s lurch toward feudalism.
If anything, outside of supporting a repeal of the latest gas tax—opposed by the party’s onetime business base—the Republicans offer no program capable of winning over middle-class Californians. And even the gas-tax repeal looks destined to fail. In some contested congressional districts, the Republicans seem outgunned and outthought. My own Orange County district, now represented by Republican Mimi Walters, is likely to flip; Walters’s Democratic opponent, Katie Porter, appears to be outspending her two-to-one. Though the area is Republican-leaning, I see many more Porter ads, both on television and on the Internet, and have been visited twice by her canvassers, but not once by anyone for Walters. Porter hopes to make headway by linking Walters to President Trump’s anti-immigration positions, a critical factor in a district now just 55 percent white, with large Asian and Hispanic voting blocs. Walters epitomizes the Republican delusion that somehow Orange County belongs to them. It doesn’t. Instead of giving voters any compelling reason to vote for her, Walters has relied on the timeworn device of labeling Porter as a free-spending liberal. Even if Walters and some of her GOP congressional compatriots slip through this cycle, their days in office are numbered.
On its current trajectory, California seems doomed to become a permanent one-party state, where oligarchs and their allies in the progressive clerisy—media, universities, bureaucracies—rule without effective opposition. Chapman University political scientist Fred Smoller, an expert on local politics and a lifelong Democrat, suggests that this would be bad for everyone, including liberals. “We really have to have two parties,” Smoller suggests, “or the Democrats will give everything to the unions.”
Some hopeful signs of pushback exist, not from Republicans, but from independent candidates running as problem-solving pragmatists. Independent voters already outnumber Republican voters. This is not a return to Reaganism, but rather, an effort to provide an alternative to the progressives, without being burdened by what former GOP congressman Tom Campbell calls the party’s “toxic label.”
A centrist could appeal precisely to the diverse middle-class voters who care about the state’s failing education system, its precarious long-term fiscal condition, and its flagging economic growth. Independent candidates this year include charter school advocate and registered Democrat Marshall Tuck, running for superintendent of education, and tech executive Steve Poizner, a registered Republican seeking to become insurance commissioner. Both, unlike Cox, have a chance to win. Money is a key difference here. Tuck, fighting against a teachers’ union satrap, Tony Thurmond, has stayed financially competitive, in part due to contributions from wealthy donors like Eli Broad and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. Poizner, himself a billionaire, has outspent his Democratic opponent.
Inevitably, the progressives will overreach. Already, Measure 10, to expand rent control, looks headed to a surprisingly decisive defeat at the hands of a broad range of small property owners and real estate interests. Future efforts to impose an expensive single-payer health-care system, or to overturn Proposition 13 (limiting property taxes), might alienate suburban families and high-income taxpayers. A downturn in the tech economy, which has been fattening state coffers, could make frugality popular again.
In the interim, California will remain hostile territory for conservatives, particularly considering that Trump is very unpopular in the state, and given the electorate’s broad support—enforced by shrill, univocal media coverage—for the climate-change agenda. But many views associated with the Right—fiscal prudence, charter schools, and reviving economic growth beyond the tech sector—could be packaged to appeal to the minorities and millennials now fueling the progressive tide. Local control over zoning and land use, which has support from about 70 percent of the electorate, according to a new USC Dornsife poll, could energize voters seeking to avoid the state’s ever-more intrusive planning regime. Independents could also win over parts of the state—notably the interior, home to one in three Californians—by opposing the fashionable progressive lunacy imposed by the Bay Area-dominated political class. There’s already opposition among Latinos, especially inland, to some of the most punitive state measures that boost energy and home prices.
The time may come when candidates with the GOP label score on these issues. For now, though, Californians concerned about the state’s direction look mostly in vain for likeminded politicians who stand any chance of winning at the polls.
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