"California has been losing for a long time but that does not mean it’s a lost cause."
When most people think of California, they think of Hollywood, beaches, great weather, and, of course, liberalism. However, according to an article titled “After decades of Republican victories, here’s how California became a blue state again” by the Los Angeles Times, California hasn’t always been a lock for the Democratic presidential nominee. Republicans won the state in nearly every presidential election between 1952 and 1988. However, California’s Latino and Asian populations boomed in the 1990s, and this growing segment of voters were turned off by the Republican Party’s hard-line stance on immigration. After the party closely tied itself to Proposition 187, a controversial California ballot measure that denied public services to people illegally in the country, Republicans struggled to win back the state's immigrant population.
Democratic candidates have won decisively in every election since 1992 by performing well in the most populous areas. This is a stark contrast to historical Republican victories in California. For example, Richard Nixon, born in Yorba Linda, represented California in both the House and Senate before becoming Vice President. He won his presidential campaign in 1968 after pledging to improve the economy and bring new leadership to the Vietnam War. When President Carter faced a tough road to reelection after a first term that saw oil crises, slow economic growth, and the Iran hostage affair, California's popular former Governor Ronald Reagan captured the spotlight. Reagan campaigned on a platform of returning optimism back to the country and easily won both of his Presidential campaigns. His popularity helped his successor George H.W. Bush win in 1988, the last time a Republican would carry California.
As stated earlier in an article by the LA Times, then-Governor Pete Wilson had a major effect on the GOP in California. An article titled "Pete Wilson still defending Prop. 187 and fighting for a better place in history" published by the LA times states:
He passed Prop 187 in the early 1990s which was a very strict immigration bill. In an interview Pete stated, “Hell no, it’s not fair,” when he was asked about how he felt about being forever tied to the 1994 ballot initiative that sought to deny public services to immigrants in the U.S. illegally. He was defiant: “Every time I have ever challenged [critics] to find one word that could be construed as racism in the campaign for 187, they have been unable to do so.” He was unapologetic: “What you’re going to find out is if you don’t do a better job of controlling the border, it is gonna be all over the country.” That’s what Wilson said he told the federal government during his governorship if it didn’t take seriously the “problem” of illegal immigration.
An Article by NPR states that It was 25 years ago that Proposition 187 passed, prohibiting undocumented immigrants from receiving health care, public education and other services. Its passage damaged Republicans in the state. According to an article on Politico, the last Republican to win statewide office in California was Arnold Schwarzenegger. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who gained fame as an action film star, was elected governor of California, the nation’s most populous state, on this day in 2003, after mounting an 11-week campaign on a reform-themed platform. Schwarzenegger, a Republican, replaced Democrat Gray Davis, the first U.S. governor since 1921 to be recalled by referendum.
What happened to the GOP in California was more of a slow decline rather than a rapid one. According to an article on CalMatters, one major factor was the end of the Cold War, which led to the near-collapse of Southern California’s defense industry, a severe recession, and then to an out-migration by hundreds of thousands of aerospace workers. Simultaneously, the region saw a wave of in-migration, primarily from Latin America, that sharply altered its cultural ambiance and political orientation. What had been a largely conservative, pro-Republican region morphed into a more liberal, Democratic-voting region. The transition was accelerated by Proposition 187, championed by Wilson as he sought re-election in 1994, which would have denied public benefits to undocumented immigrants. As California’s white population declined, it also underwent something of a cultural change. Crime, which had been a potent political issue for Republicans, declined in importance, while support for abortion rights and gay rights and environmental protection increased, especially in key suburban communities. GOP registration dropped, while that of Democrats remained fairly static and the ranks of “no-party-preference” voters swelled.
Even then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger warned the Republican party of a steep decline. An article by SFGATE relayed a speech he gave:
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger threw down a political gauntlet Friday night to conservative activists who dominate the state GOP leadership, telling them their party is "dying at the box office" and must attract more moderate voters to survive.
"If our party doesn't address the needs of the people, the needs of Republicans themselves - the voters, registered Republicans included, will look elsewhere for their political affiliation," he told a packed - and largely silent - house at the state GOP convention dinner at the Renaissance Esmeralda Resort.
The governor urged his fellow Republicans to return to the political "right of center," welcome independent voters and accept solutions to problems such as global warming and a lack of affordable health care that are supported by a majority of voters of all parties.
The final nails in the coffin began to be nailed in during the 2018 midterm elections. According to the NY times, the Democratic sweep of Orange County congressional seats drew national attention on Election Day. But the Republican losses there were a symptom of the broader collapse of a storied political organization. Republicans held just seven seats in the state’s 53-member congressional delegation after what shaped up to be a devastating midterm for the party. There was more bad news on Thursday when Representative David Valadao, a Central Valley Republican, conceded to T.J. Cox in what had been the one still-undecided district. “This was predictable — it was predicted .... California Republicans had to change with the changing California — and they haven’t. The California Republican Party has doubled down on the national rhetoric. Until we recognize the fact that our brand is dead and the people perceive our brand is dead — that we need to change it and completely fix it — there isn’t hope for us in California,” said Chad Mayes, the then-Republican California Assemblyman representing Yucca Valley.
However, despite the election losses in 2018, a new leaf was turned with new leadership and a new direction of the party. According to CalMatters, at the party’s weekend convention, state GOP delegates selected Jessica Patterson, a millennial Latina with a lengthy resume as a behind-the-scenes party operator, as their new chair. “I think we did dodge a bullet,” said Assemblyman Chad Mayes from Yucca Valley, a regular critic of the party’s fervent Trump-leaning base. Prior to the chair’s race, he had warned that an Allen election would lead elected Republicans to leave the GOP. “This will make a huge difference,” said Luis Alvarado, a consultant, adding that the election of Patterson gave him “hope” for the future of the party.
It seems that based on the 2020 election results, the new leadership and GOP strategy worked. According to an article by KTLA, the GOP flipped 4 Democrat-held seats using diverse candidates including Congressmen Mike Garcia and David Valadao and Congresswomen Michelle Park Steel and Young Kim. Also, according to the SF Chronicle, voters in the heavily blue state sided with the GOP on many ballot propositions including keeping cash bail, voting against a property tax increase on commercial property, and voting in favor of Uber and Lyft in keeping their drivers as contractors. Also reinstating affirmative action was voted down and rent control was defeated.
However, the GOP still has a big mountain to climb in a state where Joe Biden won two-thirds of the vote. The problem in California with Republicans lies in branding and perception. Republicans in California have a bad perception. That is a fact that needs to be faced. No matter how much Republicans point fingers at the Democrats for all their failures, the “R” by a candidate’s name carries a worse perception among most people in California than the “D.” I often joke that the Democrats could run a can of tomato soup with the letter “D” next to it in many districts and it would have a better chance of winning than a Republican. Until this changes, the GOP has no real future in California. However, there are several bright spots, and there is always hope for a better future.
The future of the Republican party in California will depend on several factors. First, the future will depend on the Latino vote, as well as increasing voter registration and making it a big tent party. I think the GOP needs a strategy designed specifically for California. A center-right party that focuses on solutions to the housing crisis, homeless crisis, the destruction of the middle class, and the abysmal K-12 education system will be crucial. Perhaps most important will be focusing on rebuilding the economy post-Covid-19. The CA GOP will need to focus on the issues that matter most to Californians and offer an alternative solution. California has been and will always be its own world. A GOP platform that works in Alabama will not work in California. While issues like abortion and guns are important, these issues are not the most important to California voters. Issues like the economy, healthcare, education, and solving the state’s affordability crisis are most important to Californians, and the Republicans have many solutions that they can offer.
The California GOP needs to continue with its strategy of recruiting diverse candidates to win over independents and moderate Democrats while also pointing out their new solutions to issues, rather than just being the party of “No.” Chairwoman Patterson seems to be on this same page and has had a successful 2020 election year. I am confident in her future leadership of the CA GOP. I believe the GOP has a bright future in California as long as they continue voter outreach in diverse communities and get their message out to the public. Politics is all about branding. The art will be finding that sweet spot of proper messaging and solutions that appeal to Californians and the best way to do this would be a grassroots movement. California has been losing for a long time but that does not mean it’s a lost cause. The Dallas Cowboys have not won a Superbowl Championship since 1995 but that does not mean they have to quit entirely and never play ball again.