Op-Ed: Is the California Republican Party content to stay dead? Or will it finally reinvent itself?

A delegate speaks at the 2018 California Republican Party Convention and Candidate Fair in San Diego, Calif. on May 6.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Can anyone still doubt that the California Republican Party must reinvent itself? That, otherwise, it hasn’t any hope of winning back political influence in this state, and might as well make way for a new political party to serve the role of loyal opposition?

The 2016 election made that clear, if it wasn’t before. Afterward, California’s GOP leaders changed nothing much of consequence. As a result, the 2018 election was another predictable disaster for their coalition.

Zero Republicans hold statewide office. Democrats enjoy a supermajority in the California Assembly and the state Senate. In races for the U.S. Senate, Republican candidates can’t even make it to the general election, now that the top two vote-getters in primary contests advance regardless of party. And when the House of Representatives reconvenes, the California delegation is most likely to be composed of 46 Democrats and just seven Republicans.


What’s required for political resurrection is straightforward enough.

Even some longtime loyalists are calling for the coroner. “The Grand Old Party is dead,” Kristin Olsen, former vice chair of the California GOP, declared in Cal Matters, “partly because it has failed to separate itself from today’s toxic, national brand of Republican politics.”

Republican political consultant Mike Madrid agrees. “The party has to die before it can be rebuilt,” he told Politico. “And by die, I mean, completely decimated. I think Tuesday night was a big step,” he said, referring to the midterm elections. “There is no message. There is no messenger.”

The decline and fall may continue so long as President Trump is in office, especially if political rivals beyond Democrats start to exploit the GOP’s weaknesses.

In 2018 alone, David Wasserman of Cook Political Report noticed, House Republicans lost six of 10 of their districts with the highest Latino population, and 17 of 25 of their districts with the highest Asian population. Golden State demographics are only getting less white.

“In one fell swoop, Trump and Republicans who willingly handcuffed themselves to him have turned Orange County into a GOP wasteland,” John Weaver, a strategist who has worked on the presidential campaigns of John McCain and John Kasich, told Politico. “You want to see the future? Look no further than the demographic death spiral in the place once considered a cornerstone of the party.”


Libertarians could conceivably do better than being shut down in Orange County.

What’s required for political resurrection is straightforward enough. To win, California Republicans must do better among some combination of their worst demographics: Latinos, blacks, Asian Americans, women, millennials and college-educated voters in prosperous suburbs.

So why aren’t ambitious California Republican office-seekers proclaiming, “To hell with Trump’s fear-mongering about illegal immigrants; to hell with his weak response to Charlottesville; to hell with his attacks on the rights of legal immigrants, to comments he has made denigrating Mexicans and Muslims, and to his attacks on birthright citizenship”?

Why aren’t they leading a public break from the faction of Republican Party politics preferred by Stephen Bannon and Stephen Miller in favor of the model that more inclusive, anti-racist Republicans have advised the GOP to adopt for almost an entire generation, given that such advice was inspired by a demographic future that has already arrived here?

The GOP base is one answer. As the number of Republicans shrink, the primary voters who remain are more likely to be extreme partisans. And because so much of our politics is now nationalized, they watch Fox News and don’t feel like political losers in need of a makeover. Their guy is in the White House, ostensibly making America great again. The last person they’ll support is a politician who tries to make a mark by denouncing Trump’s worst flaw, even if it is the deliberate stoking and exploitation of divisive group bigotries.

Career incentives are another answer. If you are likelier than not to lose a given election regardless, why do it as an outspoken anti-Trump Republican, alienating many longtime allies across the country, when you could lose without being seen as a disloyal apostate and preserve your ability to make a career in national Republican politics, or in what is still called the conservative movement, in spite of its shift toward right-wing populism?

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Any answer must account for why an organization ostensibly dedicated to winning elections would lose time and again without appreciably changing its strategy.

The biggest losers here aren’t the hardest core GOP partisans, who’d rather “own the libs” than win state elections, or the politicians who lose elections but still make a living in politics. It is, rather, the Californians who want a viable alternative to the Democratic Party, whether due to substantive disagreements or as a check on corruption.

Instead, they get a California GOP that can’t win, shows no sign of making changes that will allow it to win, yet probably retains just enough support to prevent a third party from emerging.

Conor Friedersdorf is a contributing writer to Opinion, a staff writer at the Atlantic and founding editor of the Best of Journalism, a newsletter that curates exceptional nonfiction.

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