In order to understand the status of the California Republican Party heading into the Nov. 4 election, let’s look back 36 years to the last time Jerry Brown sought re-election as governor of the Golden State.
Brown was a runaway winner in that contest, 56-36.5 percent (remember those numbers a week from now).
But it wasn’t a Democratic rout – not by any means.
Californians selected a Republican lieutenant governor, the first time in 85 years that voters in effect split the ticket.
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And they tapped another Republican – George Deukmejian – to succeed Evelle Younger as California’s attorney general. Four years later, Deukmejian was elected to the first of his two terms as governor while Pete Wilson, a fourth-place finisher to Younger in 1978’s GOP gubernatorial primary, denied Brown a chance to serve in the U.S. Senate – Wilson, of course, succeeded Deukmejian as governor.
The point: Though 1978 was a big year for Brown, Republicans emerged in a position to take over his job for the next 16 years.
The same can’t and won’t be said after 2014’s votes are counted.
Brown again will breeze to victory, as will perhaps the rest of the Democratic statewide slate. If so, counting both state constitutional and Senate contests, Republicans will have lost 37 of the last 41 such partisan races in California dating back to 1998.
At this point, you’re probably wondering why this column isn’t in the obituary section. Fair enough, though let it be said that reports of the California GOP’s death may be greatly exaggerated. There is a strategy for returning the party to a more competitive footing. And, on election night, there may be some success to celebrate.
First, the strategy.
Years ago, I attended Super Bowl XXXII in San Diego. With the score tied and less than two minutes remaining, Denver was lined up to run out the clock and kick a game-winning field goal. So Green Bay purposely let the Broncos walk into the end zone – to get the ball back with enough time to even the score. It didn’t work out that way.
Such is the California GOP’s approach in 2014: expend little capital on the races at the top of the ticket and focus instead on legislative races and nuts-and-bolts campaigning.
Listen to a presentation by Jim Brulte, the California GOP’s second-year chairman, and the priorities are as follows:
1. Protect Republican seats in the Legislature.
2. Eliminate the Democrats’ legislative supermajority.
3. Build a strong party infrastructure for 2014 and beyond.
Sure, maybe lightning strikes and, despite the long odds, Ashley Swearengin wins the state controller’s race or Pete Peterson becomes the next secretary of state. But the realpolitik goal for California Republicans in this election: start amassing a farm team that one day can develop into major-league talent.
In that respect, here are four such GOP candidates to keep an eye on:
▪ In the 16th Assembly District, Catharine Baker. Like the governor, the Pleasanton attorney paddles right (would ban BART strikes) and left (supports the plastic-bag ban).
▪ In the 55th Assembly District, Ling-Ling Chang. The Diamond Bar councilwoman and Taiwanese native touts jobs and economic development.
▪ In the 65th Assembly District, Young Kim. The congressional aide and local television host is trying to rally Orange County’s Chinese, Cambodian, Filipino, Korean and Vietnamese communities.
▪ In the 34th Senate District, Janet Nguyen. A boat refugee who immigrated to California in 1981, the Orange County supervisor is the highest-ranking female Vietnamese American elected official in the United States.
If all four are elected, they earn the right to become the “new face” of the GOP. And they’ll probably have loads of time to practice their craft: Alex Padilla, this year’s Democratic nominee for secretary of state, was first elected to the state Senate in 2006. He had to wait eight years for his shot a higher office.
Then again, eight years might be an optimistic time frame for Republicans to rebuild in the Golden State. At last report, California’s registered voters broke down as 43.4 percent Democrats, 28.2 percent Republicans and 23.1 percent decline to state. For the state GOP, it’s a loss of 1 in 5 voters dating back to 2002, when 35 percent of the electorate was Republican. At the same time, the decline-to-state portion has grown by nearly 60 percent. If the trend continues, California’s GOP could be looking at third-party status by the decade’s end.
However, there’s more to the problem than a declining enrollment. For California Republicans, it’s a core constituency that’s stuck in a time warp.
In 1978, 83 percent of California’s electorate was white, 8 percent Latino, 6.1 percent black and 2.9 percent Asian. The GOP’s makeup that year: 93 percent white, 4 percent Hispanic, 2 percent Asian, 1 percent black.
In 2014, the racial makeup of Californians most likely to vote: 62 percent white, 17 percent Latino, 11 percent Asian, 6 percent black. And the makeup of California Republicans most likely to vote: 76 percent white, 10 percent Latino, 10 percent Asian, 1 percent black.
Now let’s look at California Democrats most likely to turn out in 2014: 51 percent white, 23 percent Latino, 12 percent Asian, 11 percent black. Old and white though the state Democrats’ leadership may be, its rank-and-file voters are more reflective of a California that earlier this year became a majority-minority state with Latinos surpassing whites as the leading racial/ethnic group.
So returning to our checklist of Republican progress: The party potentially will have more representatives in Sacramento next January reflecting diversity not only of appearance but thought. And the party’s leadership is focused where it should be – recruiting talent.
A third positive: 2014’s Republican candidates are testing more practical approaches to presenting themselves. Swearengin has styled herself as a post-partisan problem-solver (Fresno’s mayor is a nonpartisan position). Neel Kashkari, the leading Republican vote-getter in June’s open primary, openly disagrees with the GOP’s right on abortion and same-sex marriage. Each has waged a campaign better suited to a general electorate than Republican convention halls.
And that takes us to one last herculean struggle for California’s GOP: minimizing the party’s very public differences.
In California, for every moderate like Kashkari who wants to talk up poverty and education, there’s a conservative like Tim Donnelly who wants to showcase guns and border vigilantism. Nationally, for every Jeb Bush who wants to talk immigration reform and Rand Paul who preaches minority outreach, there’s a Mike Huckabee who threatens to leave the GOP’s ranks if, in his words, the GOP “abdicates” on gay marriage.
Republican infighting in California has been going on as long as – well, Edmund Browns have sat in the Governor’s Office. With one difference, then vs. now: Be it Ronald Reagan, Deukmejian, Wilson or Arnold Schwarzenegger, GOP candidates were able to appeal to enough independents and disaffected Democrats to overcome the GOP’s numerical disadvantage.
In today’s California and in order to win statewide office, a Republican has to carry 95 percent of the party’s vote, plus at least one-third of Democrats and two-thirds of independents. It means crafting a message that is sufficient parts conservative and moderate. It means clinging to core party principles while also thinking outside the box. And it requires a national Republican avatar who is not alien to California’s blue demeanor.
That’s too tall of an order in 2014.
But the good thing about a long and deliberate climb: It leaves plenty of time to figure out how to scale the mountain.
Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.