Capitol Journal: Republicans need to change their product. Californians aren’t buying it

Assemblyman Chad Mayes (R-Yucca Valley), right, with former Gov. Schwarzenegger, at an event to debut their group New Way California.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Politics is like private enterprise. You either sell your product or perish.

California voters have not been buying Republican merchandise. So Democrats have monopolized the market.

It’s not the fault of consumers for not liking what the GOP has been peddling. Nor should the Democratic retailers be blamed.

The Republican Party is culpable for not adjusting to the changing California marketplace.


That’s my quick civics lesson about why people who don’t like what Democrats are doing in Sacramento should blame Republicans for allowing themselves to become too weak to compete. They’re super minorities and virtually irrelevant.

Republicans are supposed to provide the checks and balances against Democrats. Their job is to push back. But they’ve atrophied. That’s inexcusable.

Last week, I tucked that thought briefly into a column about some highlights and lowlights of a new $215-billion state budget crafted by Gov. Gavin Newsom and Democratic legislators. And a lot of readers — presumably Republicans — emailed me that it was twisted logic.

Some examples:

“You can’t blame Republicans for the third-world mess that is now California. Leftist, liberal voters have made it a one-party state. No conservative can get elected.”

“You got it wrong. It is all on the Democrats…. Democrats are to blame by turning a blind eye and really encouraging illegal immigration.”

“Democrats are giving everything away.”

“By the same token, you’d argue that if you’re unhappy with Trump, blame Dems, right? If they had put up a better candidate, he would have never been elected?”

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Exactly. I was arguing that in 2016 even before Democrats nominated Hillary Clinton, a flawed candidate who ran a terrible campaign. I do blame Democrats for President Trump.

I called former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a centrist Republican who famously warned a GOP state convention in 2007 that “in movie terms, we are dying at the box office. We are not filling the seats.”

In that speech, Schwarzenegger praised Ronald Reagan as “the pragmatic conservative who reached out and captured the political center.” And he quoted then-Gov. Reagan’s remarks 40 years earlier to a Republican activist group:

“We cannot become a narrow sectarian party in which all must swear allegiance to prescribed commandments. Such a party can be highly disciplined, but it does not win elections. This kind of party soon disappears in a blaze of glorious defeat.”

Reagan’s prophecy was on target: The California Republican Party has all but disappeared in a blaze of defeats, but they haven’t been glorious.

Schwarzenegger, 71, has resumed his acting career and is chairman of the Schwarzenegger Institute at USC, a centrist think tank. I asked him whether the California GOP could revive itself.

“What you need to do is to be competitive,” he said. “It’s like a business, right? The ones that offer the best service are the ones who get the most business. Same with the party. The party that has the most answers to problems, they’re getting the action, the votes.”

Schwarzenegger said voters particularly wanted answers to problems of healthcare, education and climate change, and Republicans aren’t providing them.

“They’re extremely important to women,” he added.

“When I was [governor], Republicans were complaining about the women they were losing. That was no surprise to me when I got into it. They said ‘no’ to anything.”

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Over the years, whenever a GOP legislative leader has tried to prod Republicans toward the practical center on any issue, he quickly has been dumped. Assemblyman Chad Mayes (R-Yucca Valley) was ousted as minority leader two summers ago.

Mayes had the audacity to side with Gov. Jerry Brown and Democrats in voting to extend California’s climate-change-fighting cap-and-trade program.

“California Republicans are different than national Republicans,” Mayes said during the Assembly debate. “Many of us believe that climate change is real and we have to work to address it.”

He quickly found out that his colleagues, at least, weren’t that much different. Since then Mayes has launched an organization, New Way California, to focus on issues that appeal to voters. Schwarzenegger has pitched in.

Last week I asked Mayes what the GOP needed to do. He says it needs to do more than just oppose taxes.

“I don’t know anyone who doesn’t believe Republicans aren’t the anti-tax party,” he said. “Obviously that isn’t enough. It doesn’t have the same impact it did in 1978” — when voters passed the property tax-lowering Proposition 13 — “or the mid-’90s.”

Mayes said Republicans should advocate more efficient education spending and embrace immigrants.

Immigrants “get the message,” he added, “that Republicans want to deport their parents and grandparents. It’s a repellent.”

“The only way the Republican Party can grow is to either reflect the values of the electorate or convert them,” Mayes said. “We haven’t done either….

“This is a democracy, right? In a democracy, you have to change with the time.”

Matt Rexroad is a Republican consultant and former three-term Yolo County supervisor who represented a district that generally favors Democrats. He probably kept winning reelection because it’s a nonpartisan office and he didn’t have to run with an“R” after his name on the ballot.

“Republicans have a product that sells in parts of the country but not here,” Rexroad told me. “We’re not doing well in California because the game being played by Republicans is to win across the country.

“We need the ability to say we’re a different kind of Republican in California.”

California Republicans need to change their product.

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