The Golden State has a reputation for being a true blue, super liberal Democratic stronghold. Superficially that would seem incredibly true. Democrats control every single statewide office, have both U.S. Senate seats, and are about to start the new legislative session with supermajority (two-thirds) control of both houses of the state legislature. In California, it takes a supermajority vote to raise taxes, and this is the first time any party has had supermajority control of both houses since 1883. But this Democratic electoral dominance belies the greater picture: it’s not so much that Democrats are succeeding here; it’s more that Republicans are failing. National Republicans should be taking this seriously.
First of all, California’s perceived liberalism is only partly true. The electorate is center-left but not hard left. Californians tend to be socially liberal and fiscally conservative. While you do have super liberal counties like San Francisco, the California electorate as a whole is more mixed, and some larger counties like Orange are staunchly conservative. This is the state that banned property taxes in 1978 and continues to want to keep them banned, that in 2003 recalled Democratic Governor Gray Davis and elected Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, that in 2006 rejected an oil severance tax initiative, that in 2008 passed an initiative to ban gay marriage after it had been legalized, that in 2010 passed an initiative to raise the threshold required to pass a fee from a majority to a supermajority, that in 2012 voted against labeling genetically modified foods, and the list goes on and on.
Nor have Democrats always dominated here. More new voters are registering as independents than as Democrats or Republicans. The last legislative supermajority was controlled by Republicans, not Democrats. Ronald Reagan was a Republican governor here before he went on to win the presidency with California’s electoral votes both times. In fact, outside of Jerry Brown and Gray Davis, the governor over the last few decades has always been a two-term Republican.
So what happened?
The red wave that swept up country in 1994 resulted in Republicans taking control of the Assembly and the Assembly Speakership. But that was when Assembly Republicans hit their apex. Their downfall came shortly after as then-Governor Pete Wilson advocated for a law to deny public benefits for undocumented workers. It didn’t help that in 1996 the Republican majority chose Curt Pringle as the new Speaker of the Assembly. Pringle had an anti-immigrant streak, and in 1988 he and the Orange County GOP had been sued for illegally hiring armed guards at polling places as a means of intimidating Latino voters. The problem was big enough that the state passed a law to explicitly ban this practice. The Latino voter population was still a burgeoning force at the time, but these stances along with other Republican missteps overtime left a lasting negative impression of what Latinos felt the party stood for.
Decades of gerrymandered districts didn’t help either. In seats that were safely Republican (or at least thought to be), the viable Republican that had the most conservative position tended to win the day. Overtime, staunch conservative Republicans replaced moderate ones. But these new voices didn’t match the overall moderately liberal electorate making it difficult for candidates to win statewide seats.
If some of these things are sounding familiar, it’s because Republicans nationally underwent parallel scenarios this last election cycle. Republican voter suppression efforts in critical swing states like Ohio and Florida targeted minorities and demographics that the GOP has been ineffective at bringing to their side. In order to win the Republican primary, Mitt Romney had to flip-flop from his historical stances and oppose gay marriage, deny global warming, and attack Obamacare that was modeled after his own accomplishment as Governor of Massachusetts. By the time he tried to etch-a-sketch back to the center, nobody trusted him. Republicans gerrymandered new district lines to help them retain their majority in the House, but actually lost Senate seats in part by choosing candidates too extreme for their state’s overall ideology. California Republicans may have had a 30-year head start, but the GOP across the country is catching up.
It’s far from gloom and doom for the National GOP. There are certainly some major differences between the California Republican Party (CRP) and the GOP elsewhere. For starters, the CRP is so bankrupt they even closed down their Sacramento office. Nationally, Republicans also have control of the House for the foreseeable future and prominent governorships. Relevancy and visibility is key, and the CRP doesn’t have either. But the demographics are looking worse and worse for Republicans across the country, and unless Republicans are about to make a sudden out-of-nowhere about-face on their party’s platform issues, they will continue to alienate the same demographics that have voted solidly with the Democrats in the last few elections: minorities, young voters, and women. The country may consider these voters the Obama coalition now, but turning out these voters has long been a recipe for California Democrats, and Republicans have only made this easier for them.
You have to wonder if California’s Orange County is the canary in the coal mine. Orange County is a Republican stronghold and Republicans control some 90% of all elected positions. Local Republican leaders, though, are wondering if that’s going to last. Here are some interesting statistics:
— Since 2004, GOP registration here has dropped by 31,000 votes and Democratic registration has increased by 80,000.
— In the June open U.S. Senate primary, Democrat Dianne Feinstein received 53,000 more votes from Orange County voters than Republican Emily Emken.
— In 1984, Ronald Reagan won this county by 429,000 votes. In 2004, George W. Bush won this county by 223,000 votes. In 2012, Romney won this county by 70,000 votes.
— In November, Democrat Sharon Quirk-Silva ousted Republican incumbent Assembly member Chris Norby despite a Republican registration advantage.
Local Republican activists are concerned that the trend may be permanent in the long haul and blame it largely on a combination of a growing Latino population and the inability of Republicans to communicate effectively with them. Yet it’s not like Latinos are a growing population in Orange County or California alone. They, along with other minorities, are a growing and important voting demographic across the country and Republicans would be foolish to ignore them.
In Orange County, Republicans have begun trying to integrate more Latinos into their ranks and mentor them. Their short and long-term goals are to gradually remove the stigma that they are only the party of old, white men and everyone else is unwelcome. While their efforts are in the early stages, the success or failure of their efforts could either be a model for Republicans elsewhere to follow or a sign of things to come.