There are fewer Republicans in the California congressional delegation than there are players on the roster of the Los Angeles Lakers. One half of the state’s 14 GOP House members represent districts that were carried by Hillary Clinton in last year’s presidential campaign, which has Democrats salivating at the prospect of increasing their already considerable margin in our state’s 55-member Capitol Hill delegation.
And as if life weren’t already difficult enough for these embattled California Republicans, their national party leaders last week proposed a new tax plan that could make their prospects for re-election even worse. The proposal calls for large tax cuts, which are always popular with voters. But it also eliminates a number of lucrative deductions that have benefited California taxpayers for many years. Republicans must therefore try to balance their broader philosophical support for tax relief against the specific needs of their constituents.
Like their counterparts in other high-tax states such as New York and New Jersey, many Californians have long deducted state and local income taxes from their federal obligation. Housing costs tend to be higher in these states as well, and homeowners have also profited from the mortgage interest deduction. But the current GOP proposal either eliminates or sharply limits these write-offs.
Although these changes would primarily affect the especially prosperous and heavily Democratic Bay Area, traditional Southern California GOP bastions would take a sizable hit as well. Some voters already on the fence about the GOP may ask themselves why they remain loyal if they can’t even count on Republicans for a tax break.
It seems that incumbent Republicans facing re-election fights in Orange and Ventura counties have been left hanging by their national party leadership, whose focus seems to be squarely on the needs of their colleagues in more conservative parts of the country. The leadership has opted to pay for cuts in deep red states by sticking it to Californian city slickers, beachcombers and other “coastal elites.”
Next year will mark the 30th anniversary of the last Republican presidential candidate to carry California in a general election, a period that has not coincidentally coincided with the GOP’s gradual reformulation as an overwhelmingly Southern, exurban and rural party. (The Democrats’ retrenchment has been just as extreme, as their retreat into urban cores and coastal areas has isolated them from the large expanse of so-called flyover country.) The GOP tax plan can only exacerbate this self-fulfilling geographic prophecy.
Republicans in New York and New Jersey have vocally protested the skewed nature of the tax proposal, threatening to derail the entire package if some relief is not provided for their states. California Republicans have been more publicly circumspect, perhaps because House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield is one of their own and they can deliver their message to him more discreetly. For now, quiet conversations with McCarthy can provide them with some protection from being forced to choose between standing with their party or their districts. But unless the national GOP is willing to cut California some slack, that decision can’t be avoided much longer.
Let’s not exaggerate. Many Republican voters here will see the overall size and scope of the tax package as enough to offset the specific downsides. The elimination of the alternative minimum tax, for instance, would mitigate losses for a good number of GOP supporters. And in a low-turnout midterm election, at least some California Republican incumbents will find other issues to help them achieve re-election.
Those who do survive, however, will do so in spite of their party’s leaders. It seems that national Republicans, cognizant of broader ideological and demographic trends that will prevent California from turning competitive for the foreseeable future, have decided it’s not even worth fighting to retain a foothold in the nation’s largest state.
Dan Schnur is a professor at USC’s Annenberg School of Communications. He is a former Republican political consultant who is now registered as a No Party Preference voter.