Capitol Journal: Republicans aren’t offering what California voters want. And that’s why they’re irrelevant in this state

Republican gubernatorial candidate John Cox delivered a pizza lunch to Rep. Mimi Walters’ campaign headquarters in Newport Beach on election day.
(Mark Boster / For the Times)

Battered Republican politicos in California have been in stubborn denial since their election shellacking. They’ve been offering a creative list of alibis.

Democrats spent barrels more money, the GOP groans. They were better organized; they used a new law to “harvest” votes — collecting people’s signed and sealed mail ballots and delivering them. The national GOP ignored California.

OK, so what? The truth is, California Republicans tried to market products that not enough people wanted to buy. And political investors don’t like to waste money on losing goods.


Genuflecting to President Trump also tainted some Republican candidates in a state where he is reviled by the vast majority of voters.

Embracing Trump “makes it worse because this is the worst anti-Trump major state in the country,” says Mike Murphy, a veteran Republican strategist who is co-director of the USC Center for the Political Future.

Simply put, the GOP’s declining share of the California electorate, 24%, has starkly different views than the vast majority of voters — Democrats, 43.5%, and “no party preference,” or so-called independents, 27.5%.

“It’s arithmetic,” Murphy says. “The best thing that can happen to you [in the GOP] is to become mayor of Fresno. California Republicans are learning what it’s like to be a Utah Democrat.”

The contrast between the desires of minority Republican voters on one shrinking side and the views of the majority Democratic-independent combo on the other is shown vividly in a new poll by the Public Policy Institute of California.

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It comes down to Republican voters wanting and believing things that Democrats and independents don’t. So the California GOP continues to become less and less relevant in government.

In the poll, voters were asked how they wanted Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom and the Legislature to spend the state’s projected $15-billion budget surplus. A large plurality of Republicans said it should be used to pay down debt and build up reserves. Democrats, overwhelmingly, and independents wanted to spend it on education, healthcare and services for the poor.

For most Democrats and independents, universal healthcare coverage — advocated by Newsom — was a high priority. Less than a quarter of Republicans felt that way.

Polarization really stood out when voters were asked about Trump. Only 36% of them approved of his job performance. Broken down, it was 12% among Democrats, 28% independents and 76% Republicans.

On the environment, Republicans overwhelmingly thought that stricter regulations “cost too many jobs and hurt the economy.” Democrats and independents believed lopsidedly that protecting the environment was “worth the cost.”

But the California Republicans’ Achilles’ heel and increasing cause for downfall is the persistent issue of illegal immigration — in a state where Latinos have become the largest population group and Asian Americans also are getting stronger politically. Many are deeply offended by the harsh, insensitive rhetoric of Trump and much of the GOP.

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“We have not yet been able to figure out how to effectively communicate and get significant numbers of votes from nonwhites,” outgoing state Republican Chairman Jim Brulte, a former GOP legislative leader, told Politico. “The entire country will be majority minority by 2044. ...

“California is the canary in the coal mine — not an outlier.”

The poll illustrated why GOP candidates — especially those running for statewide office — are befuddled by the issue. It’s practically impossible to please their party base while appealing to nonwhites.

In the poll, voters were asked whether they considered immigrants “a benefit to California because of their hard work and job skills” or “a burden … because they use public services.” The question didn’t specify legal immigrants or undocumented. Among Republicans, 55% considered immigrants a burden. But 83% of Democrats and 73% of independents called them a benefit.

But all voter groups favored finding a way for immigrants already living here without legal status to stay legally.

Asked to explain the incongruity of many Republicans thinking immigrants are a burden but wanting those here illegally to stay, PPIC President Mark Baldassare observed: “Republicans are conflicted on the issue in a way Democrats and independents no longer are.”

In October, Baldassare asked voters about the border wall Trump insists on building. Republicans overwhelmingly favored it. Democrats and independents were adamantly opposed.

“Republicans’ views on immigration seem to be aligned with what the president has to say,” Baldassare said. “The question Republicans ask is, ‘What does President Trump have to say about it?’”

RELATED: As California’s final votes are counted, here’s how the midterms helped Democrats sweep Orange County »

But California Republicans were strongly opposed to illegal immigration long before Trump. So was the California electorate in 1994 when it overwhelmingly passed Proposition 187 to end most public services for immigrants here illegally. The measure was ruled unconstitutional. The GOP didn’t cool it and began a downhill slide.

“The fact we still have this lesson being taught 25 years later is pretty damning,” says Republican consultant Mike Madrid, who long has been trying to change the GOP tone on immigration. “This is clearly the party of white identity politics.”

What should be done? “There needs to be an explicit denunciation of Trump and nationalism,” Madrid said.

Murphy: “California Republicans should look to other blue states where Republican governors are doing great — Maryland and Massachusetts. Focus on governing from the center and you can win, even in California. But just running on the Washington food-fight issues is political death here.”

Republicans can learn how to harvest votes. But first they need to relearn how to grow them.

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