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Republicans in California: Terminal, or showing signs of life?

The California Republican Party, long given up for dead, is showing surprising signs of life.

The last two decades have marked a slow, steady decline for a party that once yielded such national figures as Earl Warren, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Its registration rolls have fallen substantially. Worse is the recent record of statewide futility, a nearly unbroken skein of losses save for the 2003 election of Arnold Schwarzenegger under extraordinary circumstances (a snap recall vote) and Steve Poizner, who used a chunk of his high-tech fortune to become insurance commissioner in 2006, as Schwarzenegger was reelected.

But a story in the Los Angeles Times, based on data compiled by GrassrootsLab, a political research firm in Sacramento, shows one place where California Republicans have met with success: at city halls across California.  The GOP holds nearly half the mayoral and council positions in California, and outperformed Democrats in each of the last two election cycles.

“Clearly people are responding to the message of government accountability, transparency and law enforcement issues,” said Mike Madrid, the Republican cofounder of GrassrootsLab, referring to the type of issues around which municipal elections typically revolve.

The question — and it’s a huge one — is whether Republicans can build on their success at the local level, or whether the GOP brand is terminally toxic as soon as a candidate moves into the more partisan realm of legislative and statewide races.

Garry South, a veteran Democratic strategist, is certain the latter is so. He notes that municipal elections in California are, at least nominally, nonpartisan affairs. “It’s almost like an alchemy,” South said, “a perception change that comes over candidates when they go to migrate upward from a nonpartisan local office to running for partisan office.”

Madrid, for one, agrees. “We’re not guessing that if you ditch social issues and talk about just bread-and-butter issues, you win. It’s happening,” he said. "That’s as clear a road map as you can get about what the party should be doing today. Probably not just in California, but nationally.”

More grist for the roiling debate over the future of the GOP.


Twitter: @markzbarabak

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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