In a Sea of Blue, California GOP Wants Leaders Who Stay True to Their Colors

The state’s Republican party recently ousted its leader for working with Democrats. Is that hardline strategy effective?
by | November 2017
GOP state Rep. Chad Mayes was forced from his leadership position after siding with the Democrats on cap and trade. (AP)

California is one of the few states in the country where Republicans are largely irrelevant. That’s one reason a GOP leader in Sacramento broke with his party and tried a new approach. It cost him his job.

Chad Mayes, the top Republican in the state Assembly, decided to support Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to extend the state’s cap-and-trade program to address climate change. Mayes wasn’t alone among conservatives in his assessment that the deal was worth doing. The state Chamber of Commerce and other business groups endorsed the extension, recognizing that cap and trade, based largely on free market exchanges, might be the best way to hold off more stringent regulations favored by the Democratic legislative majority. The law is “better than Soviet-style command and control,” Mayes told reporters.

In return for his support, Mayes got Brown to sign off on some things most Republicans wanted, including an extension of a sales tax break for manufacturers and the elimination of a fire prevention fee for rural residents. “For people like me ... we’re pretty tired of partisan politics,” Mayes said at a news conference, standing alongside Democratic leaders. “We didn’t come here to Sacramento to just be Republicans and to hate on Democrats.”

Maybe he didn’t. Some of his colleagues felt differently. Although Mayes believes the party needs to expand its base by reaching out to the majority of Californians who are concerned about climate change, his vote was a step too far for the legislature’s Republicans. The fact that Mayes and six other Republicans in the Assembly voted for cap and trade freed Democrats from having to require all their own members to support it. “This created political cover for the Democrats, by taking advantage of the Republican votes,” says Renee Van Vechten, a political scientist at the University of Redlands. “This just infuriated the Republican caucus.”

Mayes was quickly hounded from his leadership role, losing the support of the state party and watching primary challengers line up against him. After stepping down from his leadership position, Mayes warned that the party is in a “death spiral” in the state. There’s some truth to that. California Republicans hold no statewide offices, and President Trump took only 32 percent of the state’s vote last fall.

But party activists are convinced they need to remain true to their beliefs, and GOP legislators haven’t shied from ousting leaders in recent years. Unhappy in the minority, they see the best path forward as drawing stark comparisons with the Democrats, not making deals with them. “They want to frame cap and trade as a tax, so they can run against Democrats as tax-and-spend liberals,” says Stephen Woolpert, a political scientist at St. Mary’s College of California.

This hasn’t been a winning strategy so far, but it’s not one the GOP is ready to abandon.