During a recent debate, the two candidates running neck-and-neck for the open 38th state Assembly seat cut through all the boilerplate campaign arguments about experience and temperament and got right to the real question voters face: Who will be more effective in Sacramento? Another Democrat expected to toe the majority party's line, or a member of a party that is increasingly irrelevant in the Legislature?
"If you're part of the Democratic Party, you're going to be forced to vote for the budget the way it comes out, and that's going to be the reality of it," said Dante Acosta, a Republican and Santa Clarita city councilman. His point was that his rival, Christy Smith, wouldn't have much autonomy as a Democrat.
Smith, a moderate Democrat and member of the Newhall School District board, responded by pointing out that at least her vote will count. "Your ability to be a part of the budget negotiation will be nonexistent because you are a Republican," she said.
That's not completely true — at least not yet. Although the state's GOP is marginalized in Sacramento, it still has sufficient numbers in the Legislature to thwart tax increases and be a general pain in Democrats' posteriors. But even that tiny sliver of political power is in jeopardy on Nov. 8 because districts that once were reliably conservative have turned a distinct shade of purple.
And Republicans will have no one to blame but themselves. While these districts have shifted demographically, many becoming increasingly Latino, GOP elected officials have steadfastly refused to abandon or soften positions — on guns, climate change, immigration and other hot-button issues — with which most Californians disagree. The sexist, xenophobic rhetoric coming from the disastrous Donald Trump presidential campaign certainly won't help California Republicans win on Nov. 8.
Nowhere is the changing political landscape as visible as in northern Los Angeles County, where three tight races for the Legislature and Congress are underway. The 38th Assembly, 21st Senate and 25th congressional districts have been Republican strongholds for decades. But for the first time in years, Republican candidates in these three districts face credible threats from Democratic challengers.
The 38th district, where Republican voters had long held a majority, now has a nearly equal percentage of registered Democrats. That seat is open because the man who holds it, Assemblyman Scott Wilk, decided to run for the open 21st Senate district seat, where he faces Johnathon Ervin. And in the congressional race, first-term incumbent Rep. Steve Knight is battling Democrat Bryan Caforio for reelection in a district that Republican Howard "Buck" McKeon had once held for more than two decades. Political handicappers see this district as the California congressional seat most likely to flip on Nov. 8.
All three of the Republicans in these races might actually lose. And a similar scenario is playing out across the state, in places where GOP registrations have been dropping in percentage terms and actual numbers for three decades. In northern San Diego County, Rep. Darrell Issa, a longtime GOP stalwart and Democratic Party irritant, finds himself in his first hotly contested election, facing Democrat Doug Applegate, a retired Marine colonel. And in the Central Valley, Reps. Jeff Denham (R-Turlock) and David Valadao (R-Hanford) have strong Democratic challengers as well.
If this trend continues, and it probably will, California not only will be solidly blue, but a shocking shade of cobalt. Democrats need to flip only three state legislative seats — two in the Assembly and one in the Senate — to reach a super-majority in both houses. Then the California GOP would truly be powerless, unable to participate in any meaningful way in setting policy for the state.
And it could not have happened to a more deserving bunch.
There are benefits to a two-party system in which each party acts as a check to the power of the other. But that works for the public only when there are two responsible parties participating. The state's GOP has ceased to be responsible. The continued support for Trump by Republican elected officials (except those in tight races against Democrats), even as his increasingly offensive statements pushed him more than 20 points behind Clinton in state polls, is just the latest example of how out of touch the party has become in its own state.
Meanwhile, others have usurped the GOP's traditional role as the state's fiscal pragmatist and champion of business. Gov. Jerry Brown has the power and inclination to push back on budget-busting spending schemes cooked up by legislators, and the increasingly powerful moderate Democratic caucus is business-friendly (although it has only enough members at the moment to stop bills it opposes, not to push its own initiatives through).
Can state government succeed with a second party that's withering into irrelevance? That's a question that the remaining Republicans in the Golden State ought to be asking themselves after Nov. 8.
For a complete list of The Times' endorsements for the Nov. 8 ballot, go to latimes.com/endorsements.