For a party in free fall the last two decades, California Republicans learned that it's possible to plunge even further.
The GOP not only lost every statewide office in the midterm election — again, in blowout fashion — but Democrats reestablished their supermajority in Sacramento, allowing them to legislate however they see fit.
After major defeats in Orange County and the Central Valley, two longtime strongholds, Republicans will have a significantly smaller footprint on Capitol Hill. (Democrats hold both Senate seats.) The GOP won’t even have enough lawmakers in California’s 53-member House delegation to field a nine-person softball team.
“It’s dead,” Mike Madrid, a former political director of the California Republican Party, said of the state GOP. “It exists in small regional pockets, where there are enough white, non-college-educated working-class communities for there to be a Republican Party. But that’s not much.”
Other states tilt lopsidedly in favor of one party or the other. But never before has a state with California’s huge populace and enormous import — socially, culturally, economically — been so dominated by a single political party. The implications will take years to fully comprehend.
Jim Brulte, chairman of the California GOP, professed not to worry. He said the party has legislative leaders “whose job it is to give voice to Republicans in the state capital.” Also, he went on, substantial numbers in the U.S. House and Senate, where the GOP holds the majority, will speak for Republicans in Washington as well.
The leader of House Republicans, Kevin McCarthy, hails from Bakersfield and enjoys a strong relationship with President Trump, which should help the state in its dealings with the administration. (If, as expected, San Francisco’s Nancy Pelosi is elected speaker, she would also be well positioned to protect California’s interests.)
Still, many observers — not all of them dispirited Republicans — expressed concern about the effects of such thorough Democratic domination, both in terms of policy and, more broadly, faith in the state’s political system.
“A large part of the voting population doesn’t have a spokesman, didn’t have a candidate running for U.S. Senate, didn’t have a high-profile candidate really running for any of the constitutional offices, and now doesn’t have a strong voice in the legislative process,” said Mark Baldassare, head of the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California. “It’s never a good thing for people … to feel as though their voices aren’t being heard.”
Although a distinct minority of California’s registered voters — just 24% are Republican — that still amounts to more than 4.7 million residents who identify as members of the GOP. Millions more embrace the party’s values and beliefs, even if they choose not to formally join.
Al Derlighter is one of them.
An independent who lives in the Saugus area of Santa Clarita, he paused outside the Old Town Newhall public library shortly before election day to vent his frustration. A supporter of Trump and GOP Rep. Steve Knight, who ended up losing to Democrat Katie Hill, Derlighter said he used to be a Democrat but left the party when it drifted too leftward for his taste.
“I’m a prisoner in a blue state,” said the retired 57-year-old electrical mechanic supervisor. “Very underrepresented.”
But even with overwhelming control, Democratic uniformity doesn’t necessarily mean Democratic unanimity.
Conflict within the party is inevitable, pitting, for instance, coastal lawmakers against those from inland California, business-friendly Democrats against those advocating stiffer taxes and regulation, and lawmakers from affluent quarters against those representing more economically hard-pressed neighborhoods.
Political supremacy “doesn’t mean that everybody is in lockstep or singing kumbaya,” said Garry South, who spoke from firsthand experience, having been a strategist for former Gov. Gray Davis when he wrestled with fellow Democrats. “The basic nature of human beings is to compete and fight and have conflict and that doesn’t go away just because you have one-party control.”
Still, fratricidal feuding is not the same as a robust debate between parties, or the imperative to compromise with an empowered opposition.
“Degrees within a partisan tent isn’t quite like having another party with a contrasting philosophy,” said Roger Niello, a former GOP assemblyman from Sacramento who worked with Democrats to pass a 2009 budget-balancing tax hike under Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. “You need contrary views.”
If there is some solace for Republicans, it’s the notion that nothing lasts forever. Whether it’s overreach, complacency or internal division, single-party rule inevitably sows its own destructive seeds; eventually, the California GOP — or some entity promulgating its low-tax, limited-government philosophy — will claw its way back to power.
It can take time, as happened in Texas, where decades of Democratic hegemony gave way to decades of Republican rule, which, beginning in cities and now spreading to the suburbs, is showing signs of weakening. Or it can happen all at once, the way Schwarzenegger seized power from Davis in a lightning-strike recall catalyzed by anger over taxes and rolling electrical brownouts.
“There’s a point where there’s going to be pushback,” said Don Sipple, a media strategist who helped elect Schwarzenegger as well as his successor, Gov. Jerry Brown. “It may take the form of a center-right party, whether it’s Republican or something else. But the pendulum swings both ways.”
In the meantime, Republicans are casting about for solutions, in a familiar pattern of finger-pointing and recrimination.
San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer jokes about the party’s sorrowful state: “Folks can go to the San Diego Zoo to see the endangered pandas and then visit San Diego City Hall to see one of the last California Republicans.”
Turning serious, he suggested that the way forward for the state GOP is an utter transformation into a party focused on practicality and problem-solving, shedding its anti-immigrant rhetoric, recognizing climate change as a serious threat and defining the Republican Party as something other than a rubber stamp for Trump.
“That’s the style of leadership we’ve done here in San Diego, and it works,” Faulconer said in an interview.
But within just a few hours, Travis Allen, a Huntington Beach assemblyman, announced his candidacy for state Republican Party chairman, on a stay-the-course platform firmly rooted in the moment, saying California “deserves a strong Republican Party that supports our values, ideals and our Republican president.”
Democrats, for their part, have already begun eyeing the GOP’s few remaining California House seats, sensing opportunity for further gains in 2020.