OAKLEY, Calif. — Randy Pope is a conservative-tinged libertarian with a strong aversion to big government and the nanny state he sees "growing, growing, growing."
"I can't choose which toilet I want to put in my house. I can't choose which light bulb I want to illuminate my living room," he says, ticking off the outrages on his meaty fingers. "I can't choose which shower head I'm going to use when I'm bathing."
Pope is a city councilman in this Democratic-leaning suburb on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, and if that seems unusual given his rightward bent, he is not alone. Four of the five Oakley council members are registered Republicans, like Pope, elected the same day that voters overwhelmingly backed Democrats Jerry Brown and Barack Obama and approved Proposition 30, the state tax hike initiative.
Over the last two decades, California has become a Democratic fortress, beyond the GOP's reach in presidential campaigns and all but hopeless in statewide contests. Republicans are largely irrelevant in Sacramento, where the most important fights are between liberal and more moderate Democrats.
At the local level, however, the picture is quite different. Despite the Democrats' sizable statewide registration advantage, Republicans hold close to half the 2,500 mayoral and city council seats in California, according to figures compiled by GrassrootsLab, a Sacramento research and political data firm.
In the last two statewide election cycles, when Californians voted true to partisan form — bucking the national GOP wave in 2010, siding strongly with Obama in 2012 — Republicans won more local contests than did Democrats, and not just in rural or such traditionally conservative-leaning areas as the Central Valley. More than 75 cities in California have a majority of Democratic voters but Republican-run city councils; the GOP has toeholds in such otherwise blue bastions as Alameda, Los Angeles and Santa Cruz counties.
For a party desperate to rebuild, that's the good news. "It's important because most members of the Legislature come out of local government," said state Republican Party Chairman Jim Brulte. "Most members of Congress come out of the Legislature."
Still, most municipal elections in California are nonpartisan affairs and there is good reason to question whether Republicans successful locally can advance once party label becomes more important and issues such as municipal finances and public safety, which typically help Republicans, recede.
GOP donors and the party's activists also tend to reward candidates who embrace traditional party positions on social issues, which can undermine competitiveness in state and federal elections.
"The second they move on, they're viewed through a much different lens," said Robb Korinke, the Democratic principal at GrassrootsLab, which does nonpartisan research focused on local governments statewide. "Then [they] get tied up with everything else Republicans are about at the national level" — including conservative positions on abortion and same-sex marriage — "which is fairly toxic here in California."
Oakley, a young city of about 40,000 residents on the eastern edge of the San Francisco Bay Area, illustrates both the promise and difficulty Republicans face as they try to claw their way back to power.
Pope, 41, is an Oakland police sergeant who very much looks the part, with his brawny build, close-cropped hair and mirrored sunglasses. He and his wife moved to Oakley about a decade ago, not long after it became a city, drawn by its affordable housing and countrified lifestyle. After a few years, Pope became active in local government, partly from the sense of duty instilled at a young age. "Don't come to me with problems," he remembers his father saying. "Come to me with solutions."
Running for City Council in 2010, Pope emphasized quality-of-life issues: public safety, traffic, schools. (He has three children, ages 2 to 7.) His party registration rarely came up, although, truth be told, he has little use for either major party.
The issues he now faces are not partisan so much as those of a city transitioning from farm town to bedroom community. Century-old grapevines line one of Oakley's main drags, directly across the street from earth-toned subdivisions, rising where almond orchards once stood. Horses graze nearby. The political "push-pull" here is between preservationists and those who want, as Pope put it, "a big house, a big yard and a nice restaurant to go to."
He shuns matters that reach beyond the city's 16 square miles, declining, for instance, when activists asked him to introduce a resolution opposing drone strikes against U.S. targets abroad. "I agree, you can't just execute people," Pope said. But as for staking a formal position, "that's not what the City Council does."
Pope said he has no aspirations beyond City Council and is not even certain he'll run again in 2014. He is fairly certain, though, that he'd have a tough time winning higher office as a Republican. Oakley is represented by Democrats in both Washington and Sacramento.
"I think the people who know me would vote based on my performance, for or against," Pope said as he polished off a burrito in a bustling taquería across from City Hall. "The people who don't know me" — and there are many more of them — "are going to vote the party line."
To Mike Madrid, co-founder of GrassrootsLab and a former political director for the state GOP, the Republican success in Oakley and dozens of other cities offers a clear path to success — moving away from social issues.
The party's candidates have to "join where a majority of Californians are in order to quit being viewed as a Republican who can run and win in Alabama or Mississippi," Madrid said. "The only way you get away from the brand is to run away from it."
That represents one pole in the internal party debate. Celeste Greig, a longtime GOP activist, presents the other.
"Yes, there are very important issues people care about in local communities. They care about crime and potholes and fixing sidewalks," Greig said.
But social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage also matter and are a crucial part of what separates Democrats from Republicans, Greig said. "We shouldn't walk away from those."
Some in the party have already made their choice.
Paul Leon, the Republican mayor of Ontario, changed his registration to no party preference to run for an open seat in the Assembly. But even with the switch, Leon is a decided underdog against Freddie Rodriguez, a Democratic councilman from Pomona. If Rodriguez wins the Sept. 24 special election, Democrats will reclaim their super-majority status in Sacramento.