California Republicans have suffered a painful thrashing, and the prognosis isn’t good. Recovery is far from certain.
Until last week, it was possible to be guardedly optimistic about the ultimate restoration of a healthy two-party system in California. Political power is cyclical. California at its core is centrist, even if tilted left. Surely the GOP someday would bounce back.
But now it’s hard to argue with the numbers. The California electorate is changing in composition and creed. The GOP must change with it or become permanently powerless. Yet it is bogged down on the right and becoming weaker.
It’s practically impossible to envision Californians electing a Republican governor in the future, certainly not in the next gubernatorial election, in 2014. Talk to GOP pros and none can suggest a realistic, credible challenger to Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown.
Especially after voters accepted his tax increase, Brown looks like a shoo-in for reelection, assuming he runs. And it’s hard to imagine this 74-year-old career pol not running. His life is politics and governing.
Business will back Brown because he’ll be the only moderate check on a Legislature dominated by liberal Democrats. Republicans will be virtually useless.
Let’s count the election day wounds:
Mitt Romney lost to President Obama by a landslide 21 percentage points in a state that used to consistently side with the Republican nominee.
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein drew only token Republican opposition and won by 23 points.
Democrats, at last count, were gaining four congressional seats in California.
The stunner was the state Assembly, where Democrats apparently achieved a historic supermajority to match the party’s similar feat in the Senate. This means there’s virtually nothing that Democrats can’t pass on their own in Sacramento, relegating Republicans to mathematical irrelevancy.
But it doesn’t stop there.
The Republican slice of registered voters in California slipped below 30%. Only eight years ago it was nearly 35%. Democrats are 44%.
And about that loud anti-tax mantra, the Republicans’ favorite rallying cry: Most voters aren’t listening.
Two tax-increase measures were approved by Californians. Brown’s Prop. 30 won by a surprising 8 points. Prop. 39, ending a tax break mainly for out-of-state corporations, was approved by 20 points.
The shame for Republicans is that they could have helped Democrats pass similar tax measures in the Legislature and, in turn, won major concessions. Most important for their allies in business, they probably could have gained relief from a thicket of stifling environmental regulations. They also could have owned public pension reform and, perhaps, passed a meaningful state spending cap.
Republicans claim Brown wouldn’t buck labor opposition to reforms. The governor counters that skittish Republicans never would pinpoint a concession they’d accept in trade for their tax votes.
Whatever, it’s opportunity lost. Those days of GOP bargaining leverage are history.
And when business interests and conservatives complain about liberal domination of the Legislature and labor buying votes, they should blame Republicans. They’re supposed to provide the opposition. But they’ve allowed themselves to become so weak they’re helpless.
But are they hopeless? Can they recover?
“It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” predicts Matt David, a Republican consultant who managed moderate Jon Huntsman’s campaign for the presidential nomination and was communications director for former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“We have to change our positions on social issues. We have to embrace the Republican philosophy of less government. And that means less government in people’s personal lives.”
“It means,” David continues, “embracing a woman’s right to choose and gay marriage and sensible immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship. And we have to speak out against the extremes of the party, against the Rush Limbaughs, who make outrageous comments that alienate young voters, moderate voters and minority voters, including Asians and Latinos.”
Other GOP pols told me the same thing.
Here’s the numerical problem: Latinos’ portion of the California electorate increased to 22% last week, up from 18% in 2008, according to an Associated Press exit poll. The percentage of voters under 30 rose to 27%, up from 20%.
Republican tacticians working on election campaigns had theorized that Latinos and young people wouldn’t turn out. “Their whole strategy was ‘Please stay home,’ ” says Allan Hoffenblum, a former GOP consultant who publishes the California Target Book, a handicapper of legislative and congressional races.
Hoffenblum adds: “This state is too large and too diverse to be governed by one party. Either the Republican Party will become a true political force again or something else will replace it.”
Tony Quinn, a Republican political analyst, denounces “the anti-tax zealots who for years have been tail-wagging the old flea-bitten Republican dog. Well, now, there is no dog; only fleas.”
Veteran Republican strategist Marty Wilson, a California Chamber of Commerce vice president, echoes the widespread theme that GOP candidates must stop scaring and insulting Latinos with their harsh “illegal alien” rhetoric.
“We sound like the group that wants to send their grandmother back across the border,” Wilson says. “It’s killing us in California.”
The GOP needs to return to what its purpose for being is: the party of business, of entrepreneurial opportunity, of fiscal responsibility but also sound government investment. It needs to get back to helping make government work instead of trying to starve it.
The first step on the road to recovery always is admitting there’s a problem. But even after last week’s shellacking, we’re hearing little soul-searching from California Republicans — maybe because they are in such shock.