Can the California GOP Stop Its 'Death Spiral'?
Republicans are split over whether they should move to the middle or embrace their right-wing base.
California Republicans haven’t had a good year since 1994. They’ve been shut out of power in the legislature and lost nearly all statewide races. Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, one of the last Republicans to win statewide election, once described the state party as “dying at the box office.”
This year could be even worse. Thanks to the state’s primary system, which sends the top two finishers into the general election regardless of party, Republicans will almost certainly fail to land a slot in the U.S. Senate race, and could fall short in the gubernatorial contest come June 5. Lacking any sort of party representation at the top of the ticket will likely result in fewer Republicans turning out in the fall and therefore hurt other candidates. “That will mean more losses down-ballot,” says Jack Pitney, a professor at Claremont McKenna College.
The GOP, whose share of voter registration in California has slipped to about a quarter, faces several challenges in the state. An anti-immigrant ballot measure in 1994 worked in the short term, helping Republican Gov. Pete Wilson win reelection, but has soured the state’s growing Hispanic population on the party ever since. Conservative inland areas are consistently outvoted by the increasingly liberal coastal population centers. And by November, the number of voters registered as independents is likely to surpass the self-identified Republicans.
A lot of that loss is due to moderate Republicans becoming disenchanted with the party. Unlike in some other blue states, the remaining party faithful in California aren’t moderates. GOP officials such as Schwarzenegger and state Rep. Chad Mayes -- who was ousted as the party’s Assembly leader last year after working with Democrats on a climate bill -- are trying to make the case that the party needs to revamp its image to be more competitive. That argument doesn’t convince many party loyalists, who note that statewide candidates who have presented themselves as moderates still lost. “The remaining Republicans are the diehards,” says Renee Van Vechten, a political scientist at the University of Redlands.
When Democrats started struggling in the South a quarter-century ago, their candidates tried hard to differentiate themselves from the party’s leaders in Washington. For a while, it worked there. But in today’s more partisan climate, this approach isn’t taking root in California.“The national Republican brand is an albatross around the party’s neck,” says Ethan Rarick of the University of California, Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies.
The party has done a good job of recruiting candidates who can be competitive in local races in parts of the state and enough legislative districts to deprive the Democrats, some years, of supermajorities in Sacramento. But they can’t seem to do much more than that. Party loyalists won’t support anyone who is not a staunch conservative, and that kind of candidate simply doesn’t fare well in California. “That’s what a death spiral looks like,” Pitney says.