Insider Edition

Here’s how Republicans can win in California

Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, middle, stands on stage with other women at the California Republican Party convention in September. Swearengin was the Republican nominee for state controller.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, middle, stands on stage with other women at the California Republican Party convention in September. Swearengin was the Republican nominee for state controller.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times) Los Angeles Times

Another election, another statewide drubbing for California’s Republicans. Yet the hapless state GOP managed to deny the Democrats a supermajority in both the state Senate and Assembly by focusing on a handful of winnable races – including a few in wobbly districts where Democrats had nominal advantages.

That got me thinking: Hypothetically, what if I ran for Assembly in my district in 2016?

Conventional political wisdom holds that I would almost certainly lose. Conventional wisdom isn’t always wrong.

I live in a district in San Bernardino County where registered Republicans and “decline to state” voters combined fall roughly a percentage point short of Democratic voters. This is a working- and middle-class district of predominantly Latino and black voters, whose party preference is well known. Barack Obama trounced Mitt Romney here in 2012 by a nearly 3-1 ratio, while Meg Whitman couldn’t even crack 30 percent of the vote in 2010.

Any viable campaign needs a base of support, but when just 28 percent of state voters identify as Republican – down from 35 percent 15 years ago – it’s time to change tactics and rethink some old assumptions.

It means winning over “decline to state” voters who are nominally nonpartisan but favor Democrats on many social issues. It means talking to voters in their language – English and Spanish. And it requires engaging Democrats who vote their party more out of habit than conviction.

If I were to run for the Legislature, I would focus foremost on local issues. As it happens, those issues dovetail nicely with the state’s woes. Education is my main beat, and the schools in my district are among the worst in California. But it’s easy to get mired in edu-speak. The reality is students in my district face violence daily. In my city, roughly a third of students are proficient in math, and less than half of them can read at grade level.

Most parents want their children to be safe and have better opportunities than they did. One mother I met at a south Los Angeles school earlier this year told me, “Just because we live in a poor neighborhood doesn’t mean we should be treated that way.”

Those parents need to know the system is rigged against them. They need more options.

I’m not talking about vouchers, which never gained traction in California. For now, it’s enough to push for greater public school choice: explaining why it’s a good idea to lift the cap on public charter schools, the best of which can tailor curriculum to the needs of their kids; making it easier for parents to transfer their children from district “failure factories”; and showing why their kids don’t have to be stuck with incompetent teachers.

Democrats have gone out of their way to oppose or restrict all of those reforms. They pay lip service to “quality education” while voting against laws that would greatly improve students’ chances of success.

What about those pesky social issues?

Here’s where California Republicans always run into trouble. Many party leaders and donors say Republicans should simply shut up about abortion, marriage and the like if they expect to win again. But it will not do to jettison principle in the name of political expediency. If all the Republicans have to talk about are entitlement reform and tax cuts, game over. Besides, Democrats won’t let voters forget where most Republicans stand.

So any Republican office-seeker will need to answer those questions forthrightly. And the short answer is, “It’s not 1980 anymore.”

Here’s the key, though: For a minority party to become a majority, it cannot merely oppose. It must propose. A shrinking GOP cannot rely on solutions that made sense 30 years ago but don’t quite fit now.

Above all, Republicans must avoid fatalism and resist the urge to play the martyr. Of course the GOP is out-funded and out-organized. Of course the press hates Republicans. So what? Democrats are becoming smug and overconfident. Take advantage of their complacency. Rebuild the foundation. Make the case to voters door by door. Maybe even win.

If I were really serious about running, that’s what I would do. Hypothetically speaking.

Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Contact him at