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Local government was a last bastion for struggling California Republicans. Not anymore

Local government was a last bastion for struggling California Republicans. Not anymore
With his polarizing persona and divisive policies, President Trump has turned local elections into partisan affairs. (Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post)

There’s no shortage of watery metaphors to describe the disaster that befell California Republicans this midterm election.

A blue wave. A Democratic tsunami. But the most apt may be a flood, with the casualties steadily rising as the vote count climbed in the days and weeks following Nov. 6. Eventually half the GOP congressional delegation was washed away, along with the entire slate of statewide Republican candidates.

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In Sacramento, Democrats claimed 29 of 40 state Senate seats and seized three-quarters of the 80-member Assembly — the largest number since 1883, when Chester A. Arthur was serving in the White House.

The trend was, of course, nothing new. Like a sandcastle at high tide, the Republican Party has been slowly crumbling in California for decades. (OK, enough with the liquid.)

One notable exception was government at the local level, where as recently as five years ago Republicans held close to half the state’s 2,500 mayoral and city council seats, despite the sizable and growing Democratic advantage in voter registration.

No longer.

After November’s election, Democrats will hold 49% of all seats in local government, Republicans 38% and unaffiliated lawmakers — those stating no party preference — 11%, according to figures compiled by GrassrootsLab, a nonpartisan Sacramento research and data firm. The remainder of seats will be held by members of third parties or local lawmakers whose political affiliation could not be determined.

The midterm setback for the GOP was both deep and wide.

The party lost ground not just in the uber-Democratic San Francisco Bay Area, where elected Republicans are an extremely endangered life form, but also in one-time GOP strongholds such as Orange, Riverside, San Diego and Ventura counties. All told, newly elected Democrats outnumber freshly chosen Republicans by nearly 2-to-1.

(As a side note, close to half the newly elected local officials statewide were women, much higher than usual and a reflection of the nationwide surge in their political ranks. Less than 1 in 5 of those newly elected municipal leaders were Republicans.)

Historically, the state’s local elections have not been overtly partisan affairs. There is no primary contest to get on the ballot, or caucus to fall in line with once mayor or city council members take their seat. Thus, unlike, say, an election for Congress or the Legislature, a candidate’s political affiliation has tended not to matter a whole lot.

In recent years that worked to the considerable advantage of Republicans: The focus on local issues and insignificance of party labels helped avoid negative association with the increasingly unpopular national GOP. There is, after all, no such thing as a Democratic or Republican pothole.

But that changed under President Trump.

“He injected that you’re-with-us-or-against-us element into politics so much” it even trickled down to local contests, said Mike Madrid, a Republican campaign strategist who runs GrassrootsLab with Democrat Robb Korinke.

Reasonably or not, candidates for mayor and city council were tied in many voters’ minds to the polarizing president, his hair-trigger persona, divisive policies and scorching rhetoric on issues such as race relations and immigration. That was deathly for Republicans in a state where Trump’s approval ratings hover in the pallid 30% range.

“The environment became hyper-partisan, with people looking to elect Democrats,” said Madrid, a vocal Trump critic who has urged California Republicans to break with the president and his pugnacious style of politics.

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Call it guilt by association.

Jim Brulte, a former state lawmaker and longtime GOP strategist who is serving his final months as California Republican Party chairman, wouldn’t directly criticize the president. But he echoed Madrid’s observations on the partisan cast to local races and reiterated a warning he has sounded for years within the party, largely without heed.

“Until and unless Republicans can generate significant votes out of the two fastest-growing voter groups, Hispanics and Asian Americans, we are going to suffer continued losses,” Brulte said.

What makes the bad news even worse for Republicans — as well as anyone believing in the importance of strong two-party competition in California — is the long-term implications of the party’s municipal losses.

Local government has traditionally served as a feeder for higher office, with mayors and city council members often using their political experience and base of local support to vault themselves to positions in Washington and Sacramento. With fewer strong candidates in the pipeline, recruitment efforts and GOP prospects could suffer for years to come.

Talk about a watery grave. The sound you’re hearing is the once-robust California Republican Party of Hiram Johnson, Earl Warren, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan sinking to ever-lower depths.

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