The Case of the Incredible Shrinking Circular Firing Squad- the California GOP


Two Tales of Rage

The Republican Party nationwide seems to have lost its head, and its shriveling outpost in California, which once upon a time gave us Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, is proving itself to be no different. Two months ago, party activists and the Assembly Republican Caucus ousted former Assembly Leader Chad Mayes from his perch. Mayes, a graduate of Liberty University and a card-carrying conservative, had committed the mortal sin of leading a small faction of the Republican Caucus in voting for Governor Jerry Brown’s extension of California’s Cap-and-Trade program, a big no-no in right-wing circles. Mayes was presumably just making sausages and cutting deals as good politicians usually tend to do, and probably thought he’d be able to curry favor with Democrats so as to advance conservative legislation further down the line. In any case, partly due to Mayes’s last acts as Assembly Leader, the measure passed.

Now California’s Republican activists have turned their sights on a different target- the recently-passed gas tax and vehicle fees increase, signed into law by Governor Brown this April. According to CalMatters, business groups like the Los Angeles County Business Federation and Orange County Business Council support the new law, because the state’s transportation infrastructure is- surprise!- badly in disrepair. Business groups have traditionally been aligned with Republicans on economic issues, but not this time- this time, Republican leaders in California are pushing forward on two ballot measures for the 2018 election that would repeal the new gas tax and the $5.2 billion it would raise to fix the state’s roads. Former San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio is running one, which would put in place a constitutional amendment preventing increases on transportation taxes and fees without voter approval. Gubernatorial candidate and Assemblyman Travis Allen is leading another that would merely repeal the law. CAGOP Chairman Jim Brulte and new Assembly Republican Leader Brian Dahle have also put their support behind the Tax Revolt of 2018.

I am no fan of the Rube-Goldberg machine that is Cap-and-Trade, and I’ve even written against the gas tax. Both are examples of piecemeal blue, regulatory, tax-and-spend “solutions” to issues that would be better resolved by broader institutional reform friendlier to businesses and consumers. (On climate change, curb emissions by drilling for natural gas and building nuclear plants; on infrastructure, pay for crumbling roads with money that currently gets squandered through tax evasion by the rich and the black hole of public pension funds.) The conservatives in the CAGOP are right to be disgusted by the waste of the Californian government, but they should still work in the system, and in these cases that would mean supporting the gas tax and Cap-and-Trade in exchange for gains in other areas and long-term capital in the political process.

But rather than playing the messy game of representative government and practical politics, and pushing incrementally towards conservative solutions and bold reforms of our dysfunctional system, they content themselves with self-righteous obstructionism, in the tax revolt case, and even political cannibalism in the case of Chad Mayes. Aside from devouring their own in the quest to be more ritually pure and “constitutionally conservative,” California Republicans are doing exactly what they need to do to keep losing seats at in the legislature and at local levels. For one thing, the infighting impresses no one, and gives off the impression of a party rudderless and without leadership. For another, the gas tax and Cap-and-Trade appear to be more popular among Californian voters than conservative activists would believe them to be. While the median voter might not turn on Republicans over GOP opposition to those policies, it doesn’t appear that Californians will flood to the polls against the gas tax or for Republicans opposed to Cap-and-Trade, either. Serious business interests and serious people: look to moderate Democrats, if you want to get anything done in this state.

Dan Walters called the CAGOP “a circular firing squad” recently, and he’s basically correct in that assessment. But he doesn’t go far enough. The shrinking California GOP is doing more than squabbling amongst its ever-smaller parts. By its unpopular actions in this moderate-to-liberal state, it is hastening its own shrinking and furthering its own irrelevance. A normal California Republican Party would not have invited Steve Bannon to speak at its 2017 statewide convention in Anaheim.

The CAGOP Continues to Lose

California, to put it mildly, is no fan of Steve Bannon (who even worked in Santa Monica for a while.) The state rejected Donald Trump- and presumably Steve Bannon his strategist- by a two-to-one margin (61% Clinton, 31% Trump.) But Steve Bannon will be arriving in Anaheim, the heart of Orange County, formerly the heart of the conservative movement (but a county increasingly going blue) next weekend, amidst one of the most significant election seasons for the California GOP in its post-Schwarzenegger exile. 2018 is significant because, as has been widely reported, the Democrats are targeting the seven GOP-held California Congressional seats whose voters split and voted for Hillary Clinton for President in the 2016 election. Three of those contested seats are in Orange County, and two are in nearby Los Angeles and San Diego. Of those five, three were carried by the GOP incumbents in 2016 by margins of fifteen to twenty points, but two were within seven points.

If the CAGOP seriously thinks that Steve Bannon’s appearance in Orange County will help Steve Knight, Ed Royce, Mimi Walters, Dana Rohrabacher, or Darrell Issa, or for that matter Jeff Denham and David Valadao up in the Central Valley, hold onto their seats in 2018, it is beyond delusional. Orange County went for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Republican voter registration statewide is below that of independents and decline-to-states. And there are no less than three serious Democratic Super PACs- Fight Back California, Red to Blue California, and Flip the 14– specifically targeting these seven California Republicans in a broader Democratic effort to flip the House of Representatives.

Looking at those seven critical races in the context of the Chad Mayes odyssey and the planned 2018 tax revolt, and in the broader context of the Trump presidency, doesn’t give a Republican operative very happy feelings. There doesn’t seem to be much data available on Californian voters’ opinions of the Republican Party statewide, but given the continually declining GOP voter rolls, it doesn’t look good (and it probably offers impenetrable proof that the “activate-the-base” strategy GOP officials seem to be pursuing in this state is doomed to failure.) The seven embattled Congressmen will already have to explain, to the suburban moderates and minorities in their districts who’re considering voting for Democrats in 2018, what exactly the GOP-controlled Congress has accomplished, and why exactly they continue to support, or fail to denounce, a lunatic President. They don’t need the added burden of having to explain, beyond trite tropes, why their colleagues at the state level don’t want the roads fixed and don’t like people who work across the aisle.

The institutional and activist California GOP, in short, is associating itself with three things it doesn’t need to and shouldn’t associate with, if it wants to be relevant in a purple-to-blue state- President Trump, the paranoid populist side of the conservative movement, and a host of unsavory and irresponsible figures from crackpot economists to campus provocateurs. If it wants to win the political center, it shouldn’t run this far to a fading right. The fabled 24% of California voters listed as “Decline-to-State” may well have formerly been mainstream Republicans, before the rightward turn of the party, statewide and nationwide, on social and economic issues in the mid-1990s. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2003 victory revealed a broad centrist-reformism alive and popular in a statewide majority (which the Governator unfortunately squandered) that has generally been defeated time and time again by the state’s Democratic establishment since the mid-2000s. But it’s there, and it would make a mean counter to Brown/Feinstein/Rendon-style moderate leftism- if the CAGOP could get its act together to practice it.

An Opportunity That Will Go Untaken

This is all really too bad, because a golden opportunity appears to be in the offing. U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein recently announced her intentions to run for reelection in 2018, sparking a trickle and then a wave of speculation over whether or not she’ll face a progressive challenger. State Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De Leon just hopped into the race, and billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer is also eyeing a challenge. Those two, as well as whatever no-name candidates the California Democratic Party’s increasingly-powerful progressive wing puts up, are certain to run on a more Bernie Sanders-style agenda than a Hillary Clinton or Jerry Brown one. In fact, the current generation of California statewide Democrats has been in power so long, it has generally “lost touch” with the faddier trends among activists and voters, and the next generation- epitomized by Senator Kamala Harris, Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, Mayor Eric Garcetti, Speaker Anthony Rendon, Senate President Kevin de Leon- is almost certain to be more uniformly liberal on both social and fiscal issues, despite its ongoing divides between progressives and establishmentarians.

California Democrats, with power locked on the legislature and all statewide offices, as well as the support of Hollywood and Silicon Valley and the public-sector unions, getting ever-more liberal on all issues, despite the rest of the state’s general centrism? A progressive movement that may drag the future Democratic establishment even further to the left?

This is a perfect opportunity for entrepreneurial Republicans to carve out a spot in the cultural mainstream and political center, and re-establish themselves as serious players in the state. It’s not a question of “convincing Latinos that they’re actually conservatives” or otherwise playing the conservative playbook with more minority-friendly tactics. It has to be, rather, what every party at the national level has done after it’s spent half a decade or more in the national wilderness- a question of soul-searching, of reforming and updating policy and philosophy and strategy, a question of redeveloping and reenergizing the question: what does it mean to be a Republican in California?

A slate of California Republican statewide and legislative candidates in 2018 or, more likely, 2022- when the Governor’s seat and a Senate seat are open to election- somewhat left on racial issues like immigration but somewhat right on most cultural issues, somewhat left on spending and somewhat right on regulation and other economic issues, could be the opening salvos of the campaign to rebuild the California GOP into relevance, and establish it as a responsible governing alternative to the excesses of the left we are bound to face in a few short years (and which we are already living now.) A responsible and electable and expandable California GOP would govern in partnership with the Democrats while checking them from pushing forward their worst policies. The state could be governed well again, its intractable problems put on the path towards solution.

But the California GOP doesn’t seem like it’s going to change soon, and thus does a disservice to itself and all those it claims to want to represent. If serious people come back and work, there might be a chance. But that chance looks ever less likely, as does the reelection of the California Seven.

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