California Republicans in Congress show stark divisions

"California Republicans always tend to be independent cusses. I think it’s a DNA thing," said Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Elk Grove), shown here in 2006, when he was a state senator from Northridge.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

WASHINGTON — California’s congressional delegation has long been known for its inability to get along. But Golden State Republicans aren’t just on the opposite side of issues from Democrats. Lately, they’ve been at odds among themselves.

The divisions were on display when the state’s 15 Republicans split almost evenly on a vote to end the government shutdown and extend the nation’s borrowing authority. All 38 Democrats, in contrast, stuck together in support of the measure.


The Republicans also split on roll calls this year to cut the food stamp program, provide Superstorm Sandy relief, reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act and end a program that promotes U.S. agricultural products abroad. No California Democrats broke ranks.

The GOP differences have been stark on immigration.

While Republican Reps. Jeff Denham of Turlock and David Valadao of Hanford joined Democrats in support of legislation that would provide a path to citizenship for millions of immigrants in the country illegally, some of their California GOP colleagues vehemently oppose what they regard as amnesty for lawbreakers. Others are open to granting legal status to some immigrants but oppose a path to citizenship.

It’s no surprise to find divisions within the largest state delegation in Congress, given its size, regional differences on issues such as farm policy, and the political vulnerability of some of its members.

Democrats have broken ranks too. Freshman Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Palm Desert), for example, drew flak for joining Republicans in voting to delay Obamacare’s individual mandate. Seven of the state’s Democrats recently broke from their party to support a Republican-written bill that would let insurers continue selling policies that don’t meet new federal standards under the Affordable Care Act.

Republicans have been unified on plenty of issues, such as their disdain for Obamacare, but appear to be thumbing their noses at party discipline these days more than the Democrats.

“California Republicans always tend to be independent cusses,” said Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Elk Grove). “I think it’s a DNA thing.”

Said Steve Frank, a strategist for the Tea Party Caucus of California: “It’s every man for himself. They’re looking for what’s best for themselves politically.”

The divisions reflect fissures within the larger House Republican ranks that have presented Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) with a challenge akin to trying to herd cats. Republicans have been tugged one way by the tea party and another way by business-oriented establishment Republicans.

“The Republican Party is in the midst of an internal debate over where it should be going,” said Jon Fleischman, a former state GOP official who publishes a conservative blog.

Some of the cracks within the GOP ranks are the result of geography.

“California is a huge and diverse state with districts that have little in common other than they happen to fall within our state’s borders,” said Dave Gilliard, a Republican consultant in Sacramento. “Ed Royce’s constituents in Yorba Linda have little in common with Doug LaMalfa’s in Weed.... These guys are not fearful of the tea party or business lobbyists or anyone else. Their votes are dictated by their own beliefs and how they perceive their district.”

Royce, of Fullerton, said Republicans were “struggling” to determine the best course forward for the country, given challenges such as the national debt. “Part of it is in the nature of Republicans. They’re harder to corral.”

California Republicans as a whole, like the rest of the House GOP, have become more conservative over the last 25 years, according to an analysis of voting patterns by University of Georgia political scientist Keith T. Poole.

The variation among California Republicans covers a “wider spectrum on the ideological scale” — still on the conservative side — than it has in the past, according to UC San Diego political scientist Gary Jacobson, who has studied the data. “This means that Republicans are relatively less uniform in their ideological locations, as measured by their roll-call voting patterns, than they were prior to this Congress.”

Reps. John Campbell of Irvine, Dana Rohrabacher of Costa Mesa, Royce and McClintock have compiled the most conservative voting records this year in the delegation. All four voted against ending the government shutdown. Reps. Paul Cook of Yucca Valley, Ken Calvert of Corona and Valadao, all of whom voted to end the shutdown, are at the other end of the range. On average, however, they are a bit more conservative than House Republicans as a whole, according to Jacobson.

Voter-approved changes to the state’s political system also may be contributing to the divisions.

A new political map put four Republicans in districts where Latinos make up 40% or more of the population and five in districts that are at least 30% Latino. Denham and Valadao represent heavily Latino Central Valley districts that rely on immigrants to pick crops.

“If they want to hold on to their seats, they certainly can’t behave like standard-issue Republicans,” Jacobson said.

Rohrabacher, the senior California Republican in the House, attributed the divisions to more competitive districts.

Dan Schnur, a former GOP strategist who directs USC’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, said the state’s new primary system that pits the top two finishers against each other in the general election, regardless of their party, means that candidates do not need to rely as much on the party base but must work more aggressively to reach out to independents and centrists from the other party.

“The biggest impact of the top-two primary is not during the election but afterwards,” he said. “You send someone to Sacramento or Washington, and once they get there, you’ve created a much greater incentive for them to look for ways to work with members of the other party.”

Calvert, chairman of the California Republican congressional delegation, attributed his caucus’ 8-7 split to end the government shutdown to differences over tactics.

Overall, he said, “we’re together 90% of the time.”