What a difference two years can make in the life of a political party. And for California Republicans, not for the better.
Flashback to 2014, a record-setting low voter turnout election in which Republican hopes were high. The party fielded a couple of candidates who broke a long GOP streak of white men running for statewide office. Those efforts failed, but the party won enough legislative seats to dissolve the Democrats’ supermajority at the state Capitol. It was by no means a hugely successful political season, but one that state Republicans hoped was a sign that the party’s fortunes had bottomed out.
With election day around the corner, Republican legislative and congressional candidates are struggling to break the surface after the Donald Trump tsunami, and Democrats are invoking the presidential nominee in every contest they can.
Perhaps the starkest view of the party’s problems comes from a poll last week by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California. In short, the Republican brand has become radioactive.
Of the state’s likely voters, 72% have an unfavorable opinion of the GOP. That’s eight points higher than two years ago, 14 points worse than four years ago and a massive 21 points above the party's unfavorable rating six years ago.
And then there’s this: 50% of registered Republicans have an unfavorable opinion of their party.
“These are really tough numbers,” said Mark Baldassare, PPIC’s president and chief pollster.
Even more eye-catching is the erosion of the Republican brand among fast-growing subgroups of voters. Two-thirds of millennials surveyed said they have an unfavorable view of the GOP, a view shared by 70% of unaffiliated “independent” voters, 72% of women and 75% of middle-class voters.
Not surprisingly, the party’s hardest sales pitch — the one to California’s Latino voters — must compete with the fact that 80% of Latinos surveyed view the Republican Party unfavorably.
“These are the groups that are going to be the California of the future,” Baldassare said.
Democrats fare significantly better in the poll, with a party favorability of 50%. And those numbers serve as a reminder that Republicans haven’t won a statewide race in a decade and are shut out of having a candidate for U.S. Senate on the Nov. 8 ballot — the first time that’s happened.
“What is the brand? It’s a huge question mark,” said Rob Stutzman, a GOP strategist and former state party spokesman.
Stutzman is convinced the blame lies with the Trump campaign that has so utterly flattened the state Republican trademark, and he’s been a prominent party dissenter this election season. He credits party leaders for “good, hard work” for successes in 2014 and still believes the right candidates can stop the bleeding in 2018.
Those candidates, though, may start with one of the smallest party bases in modern times. In just four years, the California Republican Party has lost more than 308,000 members, while the ranks of Democrats have grown more than 477,000. Add that to recent polls showing Hillary Clinton with a double-digit lead in California, and GOP candidates are finding the party label to be of little — if any — help.
“You almost have to run as a Republican by being the anti-Republican at the same time,” Stutzman said.