An Urgent Debate for California Republicans: How to Get Back in the Game
Posted May 6, 2018 8:12 p.m. EDT
Updated May 6, 2018 8:19 p.m. EDT
WHITTIER, Calif. — For anyone wondering about the state of the Republican Party in California these days, consider this: There may be no Republican candidate for governor or U.S. senator on the state’s ballot in November.
That dispiriting possibility is beginning to sink in for California Republicans, against the backdrop of a divisive debate among its candidates and leaders on how the embattled party can become competitive again in a state where Ronald Reagan was elected twice as governor and that Richard Nixon called home.
It’s no secret the state’s Republican Party has been in a decline for 20 years. Its challenges have been aggravated by the election of President Donald Trump, as he has pushed tougher policies on such issues as immigration and the environment, running up against strong and often bipartisan sentiment in California.
A field of Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate and governor is struggling against these headwinds as they seek to end a more than 10-year drought and elect a party member to statewide office. Under the California election system, candidates compete in an open, nonpartisan primary on June 5. The two candidates who get the most votes — regardless of party — advance to the November general election.
If Republicans fall short in capturing one of those two November slots next month, which members of both parties say is a strong possibility, it would apparently be the first election since 1914 where a major party had no candidate in either the race for Senate or governor.
Republican hopes of getting a spot on the November ballot suffered another setback Sunday when party leaders, meeting in San Diego, failed to agree on anyone to endorse in the June primary.
“Maybe hitting rock bottom is getting shut out of both state races this year,” said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a former senior adviser to Pete Wilson, a Republican governor. “You would think that if Republicans are shut out, it will be time for some serious soul-searching.”
The party, if far from the dominant power it was once in California, is still a force. Two of the most powerful Republican members of the congressional leadership represent central California: Kevin McCarthy, a close ally of Trump, who is in line to become the next speaker should Republicans hold the house in November, and Devin Nunes, chairman of the House intelligence committee. Both are popular in their districts and wield plenty of influence in Washington.
There are pockets of Republican strength across the state — in Northern California, the Central Valley and some suburbs — a remnant of when it was dominant statewide.
But the Republican Party holds no statewide offices. Democrats control both houses of the state Legislature. Party registration is on the decline. And one of the potential Republican candidates for Senate who some polls suggest has at least a theoretical shot of making it to the November ballot is Patrick Little, an extremist who has called for the country to be “free from Jews.”
There have been hard-line strains in the California Republican Party for years, centered around law and order, taxes and immigration issues. But this is also a state with a moderate wing as well.
A group of Republicans led by Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former Republican governor, and Chad Mayes, the former Republican Assembly leader, have launched a campaign to move the party to the center, arguing that would make it more competitive by increasing its appeal to independent voters and disaffected Democrats.
But that effort has run up against Republican candidates and elected officials who have tied their success to Trump and his administration’s policies.
“Arnold Schwarzenegger and Republicans like Mayes are completely wrong,” Travis Allen, a Republican candidate for governor and member of the Assembly, said in an interview. “Californian Republicans need to stand up for common sense and the rule of law and the fiscal conservatism that has been sorely lacking in our state for decades. Mayes and Schwarzenegger have done a disservice to every Californian who believes in limited government, respect for the rule of law and fiscal sanity.”
“This is why Republicans have been losing for decades in California,” he said. “These so-called Republican lights that are pandering to Democrat policies and politicians are why Californians are now registering as decline-to-state in ever-increasing numbers.”
Indeed, the moderate political line being advocated by Schwarzenegger and Mayes is not reflected by any of the limited number of viable Republican candidates for statewide office. The division over the future of the party was on full display the other night at a forum sponsored by the North Orange County Republican Women’s Federated Dinner for Allen and another Republican candidate for governor, John Cox, a businessman — the only two Republicans in a crowded field who appear to have a chance to capture one of the top two spots in the primary.
“Raise your hand if you voted for Donald Trump,” Allen said from the stage as most of the hands went up. “In 2016 we took back our country. In 2018 we are taking back California.”
A few moments later, both candidates told the moderator that they firmly supported Trump’s call to build a wall along the Mexican border. “A border wall should not be controversial at all,” Cox said. “That should be the No. 1 thing we do. We have a country to the south of us that is relatively ungoverned now.”
“I support the president, by the way, 100 percent,” he said. “I’m glad he’s president.”
Mayes, who was ousted as the Republican leader of the state Assembly after he negotiated a Republican vote-delivering compromise with Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, on legislation to curb greenhouse emissions, said that sentiment threatened to further distance the party from voters.
“We went from having an approach under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush where we loved and cared about people and we went out of our way to make sure people’s lives were better to this ‘us versus them’ mentality,” he said.
“We have to stop making excuses for not winning in California,” Mayes added. “We need to come to grips with reality and understand the electorate in California has changed. We have to go to them. We are not going to win elections until we figure that out.”
But many Republicans echo the concerns being expressed by candidates this campaign season about immigration, as well as their support for Trump. Jim de Martini, a farmer and local Republican county leader in Stanislaus County, said he thought the president and his policies — on the economy, immigration and foreign policy — would resonate for voters here. “He’s done a great job on the economy,” he said. “Tax cuts. Promoting business.”
De Martini, reflecting what has historically been a source of Republican strength in the state, said the party should be focusing as well on what he described as overspending and overregulation by Democrats who control the state government.
“The economy is always the big issue because the state of California has been irresponsible in its budget, bankrupting the state and over-regulating,” he said. “It is destroying the state.”
The prospect that there may be no Republican candidate for Senate or governor in November casts both short-term and long-term threats for the party.
For this election, it could complicate efforts to draw Republicans to the polls in a year when Democrats are looking to oust as many as seven endangered Republican members of Congress. To try to counter that, Republicans, including McCarthy, are pushing an initiative for the November ballot to repeal a gasoline tax instituted by Democrats in the Legislature last year. For the long term, it is a reminder of just how little influence the party has statewide. Republicans failed to win a spot on the 2016 ballot for Senate as well.
“It’s important that we start talking about different issues,” said Rocky Chavez, a Republican member of the Assembly who is running for a congressional seat left open by the retirement of Rep. Darrell Issa of San Diego County. “The environment is an important thing in California. That’s not something Republicans always talk about.”
But Chavez’s argument failed to win him the support of the San Diego County Republican Party and Issa; it instead backed Diane Harkey, a former member of the Assembly who has, like Issa, struck a more hardened conservative line.
One of the key points of contention with the Republican Party in the state is immigration. It has been a complication for Republicans since California voters passed an initiative pushed by the Republican governor, Pete Wilson, in 1994 to prohibit illegal immigrants from getting state social services. That initiative, which was thrown out in court, was seen as one of the critical reasons for the party’s decline, as the Latino population in this state has continued to grow, and as California became more Democratic.
Democrats make up nearly 45 percent of the total number of registered voters in the state. Republicans account for about 25 percent, just slightly ahead of the percentage of voters who declined to pick a party registration.
Given the changing political and demographic tides, many Republicans have, since 1994, sought to move away from the tougher immigration positions in an effort to expand the party’s appeal. But Trump pushed immigration back to the front burner — and Democrats responded by passing sanctuary state laws intended to hamper efforts by federal immigration officers.
“The biggest issue is the sanctuary state thing,” said Cox, the businessman running for governor. “The politicians seem to be favoring criminals more than law-abiding citizens.” Finally, Trump himself has emerged as a critical issue as Republicans try to chart a path forward. Trump lost California by nearly 4 million votes, and he remains consistently unpopular overall. But he is popular with Republican primary voters, and candidates have lined up behind him.
“I’m at a forum a few weeks ago and I’m listening to these Democrats ripping him up,” Cox said. “I said, ‘Donald Trump didn’t create the housing crisis. Donald Trump didn’t create a drought. Donald Trump didn’t raise your taxes to ridiculous heights. You are sitting here making Donald Trump the issue.’ The issue on the ballot in 2018 is not going to be Donald Trump.”