For months, many Republicans in California have held their heads in their hands, watching the presidential contest unfold in a way injurious to their uphill struggle to rebuild the state party.
On Thursday night at the seventh GOP presidential debate, there were glimmers of what might have been, before Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and the vilifying of immigrants took over the presidential campaign.
There were candidates — Jeb Bush and John Kasich particularly — who spoke of embracing disparate groups, of their support for immigrants and the misbegotten. For a while, it was almost as if they wanted to talk to the majority of Republicans in the nation’s biggest state.
Well, let’s not get too upbeat. The debate’s tone was decidedly different from past ones because the man who has commanded the race, Trump, had abandoned the stage in a snit with Fox News, the debate sponsor. His departure opened more space for candidates like Kasich and Bush who have shrunk in his shadow in the six previous gatherings.
And, to be sure, there were statements reminiscent of Trump — or at least reminders of how far he and the conservative national base have pulled the candidates in the past year.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio bickered at length over immigration, both distancing themselves from past support for either legal status or a path to citizenship for the 11 million people in the country without proper documents. The other candidates were happy to point out that this made the duo look hypocritical to both sides of the immigration debate, which this year has included proposals to limit legal immigration as well.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, asked what one part of government he would eradicate, cited the funding of Planned Parenthood, a move that would take contraceptives away from many women who cannot otherwise afford them.
Cruz was soon back to declare the president’s healthcare plan a “disaster” and pledge to “repeal every word of Obamacare” when he took office. Only then, he said, would he moved toward a replacement plan, leaving unspoken what would happen to the millions in California alone who had lost insurance.
And Rubio was back, too, declaring his irrefutable opposition to cap-and-trade programs meant to lessen the use of greenhouse gases and appreciation for the governing force of his faith.
So yes, there was some bad news in there for California Republicans.
It does little for their party’s image here to have national candidates opposing a path to citizenship and limiting legal entrance — objecting to any government money going to contraception through an organization highly popular among women, vowing to eradicate the healthcare program popular in California and making the kind of public embrace of religion that has alienated prime voter groups here.
Still, there was at least some talk that California Republicans have warmed to in recent years as they’ve seen the state’s demographics moving away from them. The state party itself last year softened its official stance on immigration and embraced a gay group, but the image boost that might have garnered pales in comparison to the recasting that can be done by a successful presidential campaign.
The ones talking Thursday aren’t successful yet, though politicians are nothing if not wildly optimistic in the face of stark realities.
Bush slapped around Rubio for backing away from Rubio’s own immigration plan, which called for a path to citizenship. (Yes, Bush ignored the fact that he, too, has moved around, from approval of citizenship to approval of legal status, a lesser gain for the immigrant.)
“We should be a welcoming nation,” Bush said. “Our identity is not based on race or ethnicity, it’s based on a set of shared values.... We should celebrate it as conservatives. That’s what we believe in.”
Bush derided Trump’s proposal to ban all Muslims from traveling to the United States.
“Well, that creates an environment that’s toxic in our own country,” he said, praising the young Muslim woman who, on a debate video. had asked what the candidates would do to lessen the “culture of hatred” aimed at Muslims. “She should not feel uncomfortable about her citizenship. She’s not the threat. The threat is Islamic terrorism.”
The political danger of more restrictive views was evident in a poll released last week by the Public Policy Institute of California. Overall, 68% of Californians said immigrants were a benefit to California, 22 points higher than when the question was asked in 1998. And 27% of Californians said immigrants were a burden, down 15 points from 1998.
Asked if those in the country illegally should be allowed to stay if certain requirements were met, 82% of Californians said they should be able to stay, as opposed to 17% who said they should be deported. Among Republicans, 60% said those immigrants should stay here, while 39% said they should leave.
The effect of immigration views on the candidates was pronounced. Among those who felt immigrants here illegally should be allowed to stay, only 17% had a favorable view of Trump; 79% had a negative view. Among those favoring deportation, 46% had a positive view of Trump and 51% unfavorable.
The poll asked for views of four Republicans — Trump, Cruz, Rubio and neurosurgeon Ben Carson — and among those open to allowing the immigrants to remain here, no candidate received more than a 30% positive rating.
The survey did not ask about Kasich or Bush since neither met a threshold of 10% support in national surveys. Imagine, however, what might happen under two longshot conditions: a California primary that is actually contested, and featuring candidates like them with the money to compete.
It’s an even longer shot to suggest that a Republican candidate of any stripe could win the state’s presidential contest in November.
The Democratic nominee will have a huge advantage born of the political dominance of women, minorities and younger voters loyal to the party. But competition has to start somewhere, and until it does, California will be presumed blue on election nights out into the distant future.