Sen. Jeff Stone’s annual trip to the Governor’s Mansion for dinner felt different this year.
In the past, the Temecula Republican said, it felt as though members of his party were invited almost as a formality, as the governor slapped backs with Democrats over climate change and other issues that often split the two parties.
But at the gathering earlier this month, the governor talked about lawmakers working together from both sides of the aisle and minimizing negative rhetoric against President Donald Trump, Stone said. By the end of the night, he stood side-by-side with the governor sipping Stone Reserve “Sweet Charlene,” a dessert wine Stone named after his own late mother and brought up from his Southern California vineyard.
“It seems like we got more attention,” Stone said. “This is a very unique time when all of the sudden we have a president who is a Republican, Congress that is Republican and we have $105 billion in funding that this president and Congress control.”
With Trump in the White House, a party long out of step in Democrat-dominated California sees an opportunity. Republicans like Stone say they should have a more relevant role as a bridge between the state and a GOP Congress and White House. A state that voted for Hillary Clinton, they say, still needs to maintain its financial ties with the federal government.
It’s a new situation for lawmakers who remain a political minority in California. A poll released earlier this month found that a third of Golden State voters approve of the job Trump has done so far. In most California districts, Republican legislators outperformed Trump.
And the demographic reality in California is as troubling for Republican politicians as it was before the election.
Making up 26 percent of voters, Republicans are barely hanging on as the second-largest registration status in the state. Californians who declined to state a party preference represented 24.3 percent of voters in November.
Latinos, a majority of whom are Democrats, are the largest ethnic group in California, giving them more influence here than anywhere else in the country. While carrying Trump and Republicans nationally, poor and middle class Caucasians represent a decreasing segment of the population in California.
As Democratic legislative leaders rail against Trump regularly, most of their Republican colleagues keep their feelings closer to the vest. Senate Republican leader Jean Fuller of Bakersfield, for example, declined interview requests for this story.
Sen. Joel Anderson, R-Alpine, introduced Donald Trump at last year’s California Republican Party convention. He came out as an early supporter of the president, and Trump won Anderson’s district by more than 20,000 votes.
Yet Anderson said he’s been vilified for supporting Trump or even talking about immigration and his desire to deport undocumented felons. He said he understands why some of his colleagues are less outspoken.
“Who wants to get the beatdown?” Anderson said. “It’s not like I get extra pay. It’s not like I get more good publicity. I get a beatdown from everyone. But you know what? I’m proud of who I am and I’m proud of the district I represent.”
Other Republicans have opted to spend more time criticizing Democrats than defending, or even mentioning, Trump.
On Inauguration Day, Assembly Democrats released a video introducing the “California Contract,” promoting the work they’ve achieved and pledging to build on those gains in the Trump era.
Assembly Republicans responded with a video of their own that calls out the problems that persist in California under Democratic leadership.
“Capitol Democrats have controlled California for decades and are proud of their work,” a female narrator says in one of the videos. “Their achievements? The highest poverty rate in the nation. That’s not achievement, that’s unacceptable. California deserves better. It’s time to turn the page, and Assembly Republicans are listening.”
Republicans are also changing up their strategy to address demographic changes that put their party at risk.
Republican Assembly leader Chad Mayes of Yucca Valley, steering clear of the Trump debate, is leading an effort to make the conservative message less pro-business and anti-government and more about creating government that helps regular Californians.
“In the past we decided to just scream into bullhorns because that sounds great,” Mayes said. “When in the reality what we need to do is build relationships inside the building, but we also have to build relationships with Californians. We have to tell Californians that, ‘Yeah we really do like you. We understand that you may not like us, but we genuinely do care about you. We want to make California a better place for you.’ ”
For years, Republican leaders of the Legislature played a key role in budget talks and were part of a group called the “Big 5,” which also included the governor and Democratic leaders of each house. Then voters in 2010 passed Proposition 25, which eliminated a two-thirds majority vote requirement to the pass the budget, rendering Republicans irrelevant in budget talks.
Longtime Republican legislative staff members say members spent years introducing legislation, then telling everyone why they should support it. Now they’ve taken a page from the Democrats’ playbook and are looking to sit down with unions, business groups and other stakeholders before they craft legislation. They hope to seek more joint authors from across the aisle, specifically looking for moderate Democrats, to lessen the stigma of a Republican bill.
Assembly Republicans are pushing a package of policy proposals in the form of tax credits and incentives to lessen the financial burden on the middle class this year. Their goal is to find issues that resonate with all Californians that Republicans can also support.
The bills include an expansion of tax credits, such as the renter’s credit, the earned income tax credit and the child care tax credit. One establishes a homeownership savings account.
A Mayes bill increases a monthly education bonus for CalWORKs recipients who attain a high school diploma, associates degree or bachelor’s degree. Assemblyman Dante Acosta, R-Santa Clarita, introduced legislation that would create a grant program to give foster youths the opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities. Other bills take on homeless-youth housing and attempt to raise weak reimbursement rates for the Denti-Cal program to ensure coverage for more patients.
Republicans have commended Gov. Jerry Brown for taking a measured approach to the Trump administration and stressing the need to work across party lines. Mayes called Democratic legislators’ recent anti-Trump rhetoric a “stupid strategy,” and others have referred to Brown as “the only adult in the room.”
During Brown’s State of the State address this year, Mayes said he thought the governor looked toward him and Fuller.
“Democrats are in the majority, but Republicans represent real Californians too,” Brown said. “And by the way, those Californians want to be heard, too, and they want to be listened to. So let’s work together as Republicans and Democrats and find more things to do together.”
But so far, Mayes and others say they haven’t seen much change in behavior from their colleagues in the Legislature. Mayes said he and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Paramount, have a great relationship, which some liken to a “bromance,” but haven’t engaged in policy discussions much this year.
“There’s definitely some things that I think we can do,” Mayes said about working with the federal government on water and transportation projects and other issues affecting California. “At the same time, it makes it difficult for California as a whole when you have the leaders being openly antagonistic.”
During a news conference Friday to discuss state flood control plans, Brown was asked if the state’s resistance to Trump will hurt California’s requests for aid. Brown sent a letter to the president Friday asking him to expedite environmental reviews of nine state transportation projects and the reconstruction of the Oroville Dam spillways.
“We have to walk a very thoughtful line here in seeking help that we need but also calling attention to those things we object to and fighting vigorously when required,” Brown replied.
Mike Madrid, a Republican political consultant, said it behooves Democratic legislators to work with their Republican colleagues and cut back on Trump talk.
“(Democratic) legislative leadership has literally never had a need to work on a bipartisan basis,” Madrid said. “When they are confronted with a situation now where they don’t control any of the three branches at the federal level, they don’t know how to respond.”
Many Republican state legislators have relationships with their counterparts in Congress and will likely weigh in on immigration changes, transportation projects and other policy decisions expected from Washington, Madrid said.
Mayes in particular said he intends to make several trips to Washington to take part in talks about a replacement for the Affordable Care Act.
“I’ll be advocating for what’s best for California,” he said.
It’s also not uncommon for staff members working in the state Legislature to graduate to national political jobs. Sen. John Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa, for example, said he lost three top employees to the new administration.
“In one election cycle, the people who were the least relevant are now arguably the most relevant,” Madrid said.