Op-Ed: The GOP is now a zombie of the party that triumphed in the 2003 recall

Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger, left, and Gov. Gray Davis meet at the governor's office at the Capitol.
Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger, left, and Gov. Gray Davis meet at the governor’s private office at the Capitol in Sacramento on Oct. 23, 2003.

(Associated Press)

In October 2003, I was working at the CBS affiliate in Bakersfield running the assignment desk and helping produce our political coverage. It was an exciting time to be in both news and politics.

On our very own news set, country music icon Buck Owens, who had made Bakersfield his adopted home, presented Arnold Schwarzenegger with an autographed guitar. I remember so vividly the energy and excitement that filled the atmosphere. One of the loudest campaign events I’ve ever experienced was when the would-be “Governator” campaigned with the man who was then-known as “America’s Mayor,” former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. There was a palpable feeling that this could be a fresh start, both for the state but also for the Republican Party. Even though we were in the midst of an unprecedented political upheaval in California, the environment was positive and enthusiastic.

During his victory speech, Schwarzenegger declared that he would “reach out to Republicans, to Democrats and independents, to those who supported the recall and those who did not, those who supported me today and those who did not. I want to reach out to everybody, to young and old, rich and poor, people of all religions, all colors and all nationalities. I want to be the governor for the people. I want to represent everybody.”


In many ways, the recall election of 2003 was a battle between the state’s more moderate and conservative factions. Schwarzenegger, who was then a member of the Kennedy family, became the standard bearer for the moderates while then-state Sen. Tom McClintock ran as the conservative choice. McClintock openly questioned Schwarzenegger’s party loyalty, saying, “This is a man who just a few years ago said he was ashamed to be a Republican.”

Schwarzenegger, the moderate, won decisively. That was the last time the Golden State would elect a Republican governor.

Two decades later, the portrait of the Republican Party is far different. In 2003, Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield was the Assembly Republican leader who attached himself to Schwarzenegger and helped lead the fight for the “moderates” in the party. Today, McCarthy, House minority leader, has wrapped himself in the cloak of conspiracy theories and anti-democratic identity politics.

Schwarzenegger calls the effort that McCarthy has embraced to overturn a free and fair election “crazy and evil.” Such rhetoric is enough for you to get kicked out of McCarthy’s leadership team, just ask Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.). A new CNN poll revealed that 59% of Republican voters believe that adherence to “the big lie” that Donald Trump won the 2020 election is “important” to being a Republican. In just two decades, Schwarzenegger has gone from being the standard bearer of the Republican Party to an outcast who probably couldn’t beat a figure like now-Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Elk Grove) in a GOP primary.

In what has become a familiar cycle, this iteration of the Republican Party will make a lot of noise, raise a lot of money, generate a lot of headlines, and ultimately lose.

It’s what happened nationally in the 2018 midterms. It’s what happened in the Louisiana and Kentucky gubernatorial races in 2019. It’s what happened with the presidential race in 2020 and it’s what happened in the Georgia Senate races that delivered the Democrats a majority in the Senate in January. Time and again, Republicans have run to the extreme right, pandering to the politics of fear and division, only to lose. They have mastered the ability to seize defeat from the jaws of victory, leaving behind a party that year after year is growing more radical, and also becoming smaller and smaller.


As goes California, so goes the country, the saying goes. This second gubernatorial recall election should be instructive for Republicans nationwide. If recent history is any indication, the GOP will continue the failed cycle of learning the wrong lessons from defeat and continue its embrace of extremism and conspiracy that will serve to only alienate it further from the mainstream of this country.

Kurt Bardella is a contributing writer to Opinion. He is a senior advisor to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and a former aide to California Republican Congressmen Darrell Issa and Brian Bilbray. @KurtBardella