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Op-Ed: The GOP failed to heed the decline of California’s Republican Party

The Nov. 9, 1994, front page of the Los Angeles Times catalogues Republican victories.
The GOP’s 1994 embrace of Proposition 187, which sought to prevent immigrants who were in the country illegally from accessing public services, spelled the beginning of the end for the Republican Party in California.
(Los Angeles Times)

The 50th Congressional District is one of the last Republican strongholds in California. Encompassing large swaths of San Diego County, it’s also where I grew up. As a student at Escondido High School, I got my first experience in politics, speaking out at local City Council meetings. I never imagined that I’d end up in Washington, D.C., some years later, working for members of Congress who represented my community.

It’s been more than 15 years since I’ve lived in San Diego County, but I still think of it as home. With each election cycle, I’ve watched the margin between Republican and Democratic candidates narrow. Mitt Romney won the 50th District by more than 20 points in 2012. Donald Trump won it by 15 in 2016. Voters registered as Republican still enjoy a double-digit advantage over voters registered as Democrats in the district, but a poll released this week found that Joe Biden has a three-point lead over President Trump. The survey also showed the race for the House seat vacated by former Congressman Duncan Hunter in a virtual deadlock, with Republican Darrell Issa (my former boss) in a statistical tie with Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar.

What’s happening in the 50th District should sound alarms throughout the Republican Party. It is both a harbinger of things to come and a continuation of things already underway. Orange County, that other GOP firewall, flipped blue in the 2018 midterm elections. Inexplicably, Republicans on the national stage don’t see California’s shifting politics as a warning. Instead, they view it as cause for mockery.

After flipping the longtime GOP stronghold, Democrats’ moderate and progressive wings battle for the soul of the party, mirroring the changing demographics of Orange County.

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Consider the attacks at the Republican National Convention. “If you want to see the socialist Biden-Harris future for our country, just take a look at California,” Kimberly Guilfoyle, a Trump campaign fundraiser and girlfriend of Donald Trump Jr., declared during her speech. Ironic when you consider that Guilfoyle, who was once married to Gov. Gavin Newsom, could have been California’s first lady. In his address, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida characterized California as a “horror film” run by “woke-topians.”

The speakers clearly took their cues from the president. California is one of Trump’s favorite punching bags. In a recent tweet, he blamed the state’s rolling blackouts on liberal politicians and Democratic climate policies: “In California, Democrats have intentionally implemented rolling blackouts — forcing Americans in the dark… The Bernie/Biden/AOC Green New Deal plan would take California’s failed policies to every American!”

You wouldn’t know it from any of this rhetoric, but just 25 years ago, the Republican Party was thriving in California.

Pete Wilson, a Republican, had been decisively reelected as governor by 15 percentage points. Republican candidates for attorney general, secretary of state, treasurer and insurance commissioner had all won statewide races. Republicans even held a majority in the state Assembly. The governor’s mansion hadn’t been occupied by a Democrat in more than a decade.

Today, Republicans occupy zero statewide offices. In the 2018 midterm elections, voters gave Democrats supermajorities in the state Assembly and Senate. Statewide, Republicans have fallen behind both Democrats and independents in voter registration. In 2½ decades, the California Republican Party went from dominance to irrelevance.

Trump and other Republican leaders may want to note what precipitated their problem in America’s most populous state. The decline started with the party’s embrace of Proposition 187, a ballot initiative that sought to deny immigrants who were in the country illegally from receiving a host of public benefits, including healthcare and education. Although the measure was approved by voters, it never became law. Still, the damage was done: Republicans positioned themselves against the fastest-growing demographic in the state. The party never recovered. By the middle of 2015, Latinos were the largest ethnic group in California.

Proposition 187 was to the California Republican Party of the 1990s what “Build the wall!” is to the Republican Party of 2020. The shifting demographic realities, too, are similar. According to projections by the Census Bureau, the U.S. will have a majority-minority population by 2045. And yet, as the country becomes more and more diverse, Trump and his party are doubling down on an anti-immigrant agenda.

To know how this story ends, all the GOP need do is look at its trajectory in California. Trump and his colleagues may think vilifying the state is an effective strategy, but their racist rhetoric and policies could soon alienate a majority of the national electorate, and permanently. In the long run, it is a guaranteed recipe for political failure.

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The philosopher George Santayana wrote that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Party stalwarts who are blindly following President Trump would be wise to consult some California Republicans — if they can find any.

Kurt Bardella is a senior advisor to the Lincoln Project. He previously worked as an aide to Congressmen Darrell Issa and Brian Bilbray and in the California Senate and Assembly. @KurtBardella


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