Capitol Alert

Contemplating political death, California GOP clashes over party’s path

Thirty-eight days after Assembly Republican Leader Chad Mayes shared the stage with Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown to celebrate major climate legislation, his caucus on Thursday chose his replacement.

The vote might have come sooner, if not for a month-long legislative recess that began shortly after Mayes and six of his colleagues crossed party lines to help pass an extension of California’s cap-and-trade program for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Mayes argued the deal could help realign Republicans with a state quickly evolving away from their ideology. Instead, it launched weeks of backlash among conservative activists within his party who saw a betrayal of their fundamental principles.

“The caucus listened to the voices of grassroots Republicans from across the state,” said Harmeet Dhillon, a California GOP board member who led the campaign against Mayes and successfully pushed for a state party resolution urging him to resign or be replaced. “When you capitulate to extreme left-wing policies, that’s not bipartisan, that’s surrender.”

Republicans are debating how to turn around their dwindling political fortunes in California, including super-minority status in the Legislature, no statewide electoral victories in more than a decade, and registration that has fallen to about a quarter of all voters.

It’s a conversation that has taken place within the party, off and on, for decades. Which is a more viable approach to regaining relevance – moving to the middle to engage new voters or sticking with the long-held positions of its most loyal members?

Mayes’ ouster does not immediately settle the question.

Many Republicans believe their best bet is to embrace their traditional identity as the party of taxpayers and to emphasize their differences from ruling Democrats, particularly a deeply unpopular gas tax increase approved by Democratic lawmakers and Brown in April.

But at a press conference following the caucus vote, Mayes offered no apologies for his governing philosophy that Republicans are dooming themselves to political death by remaining a voice of mere opposition. Standing alongside his successor, Assemblyman Brian Dahle, R-Nubieber,  Mayes promised a collaborative transition in the coming weeks and continuing dedication to expanding the issues in which Republicans are involved.

“I am committed to the cause of moving the California Republican Party in a direction that reflects Californians and reflects our conservative principles in action,” he said.

Democrats, in California and nationally, are undergoing their own internal disputes after recent electoral disappointments. Many officials want to bring the party toward the political center in an effort to win back white, working-class voters it has lost, while liberals, especially in strongholds like California, push the party to embrace more progressive policies.

This moment is especially fraught for the California Republican Party, however. It’s at the height of its powerlessness and facing critical midterm elections next year, when historically favorable turnout trends could be offset by a wave of anti-Trump sentiment.

Some veteran GOP strategists believe they already had a winning issue after Brown signed into law billions of dollars in higher fuel taxes and vehicle fees to help cover the state’s transportation needs for the next decade. Polling found only a third of Californians supported the package.

Mayes undermined Republicans’ anti-tax message, they said, by supporting cap-and-trade, an auction-based system for polluting businesses that many Republicans view as another tax.

Dave Gilliard, who consults on legislative races, said it has always worked for Republicans to be the party of economic issues.

Uniform GOP opposition to the gas tax, he said, provided a “real bright line” for the middle class and low-wage voters in swing districts who are most affected by an increase in fuel prices. He noted that polling shows Latinos, whom Republicans have struggled to win over since their anti-illegal immigration heyday in the 1990s, are very negative about the gas tax.

“All of a sudden you blow that line, you don’t give that voter a real choice,” Gilliard said.

With so few members in the Legislature, he added, negotiating with Democrats is counterproductive, because it can only end with Republicans compromising for a Democratic priority.

“There’s no opportunity for the Republicans to work with the Democrats effectively,” he said.

Wayne Johnson, another GOP consultant, criticized Mayes not only for supporting the cap-and-trade policy, but also for providing enough Republican votes to cover several targeted Democrats who did not support the bill.

“You fumbled the ball, and you were running the wrong direction. And I’m not sure which one I’m more upset about,” he said.

Johnson said no Republican leader could survive those kinds of political blunders.

“We do not try to rescue the Republican Party. What we try to do is the right thing,” he said. “It never ends well for those who do the deal.”

Mayes rejected that approach as Assembly Republican leader. In an interview with The Bee on Wednesday, he said Republicans had done a poor job converting Californians to their ideas and needed now to listen and reflect voters’ values more.

“You can take one issue and you can maybe get to a point to where you can use that for short-term political gain,” he said. “That doesn’t solve the problem of ‘Californians think that Republicans don’t have the answer.’”

Some Republicans, he noted, distrusted him well before the cap-and-trade vote because of his friendship with Democratic Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon and his involvement last year in renewing a tax on health plans to pay for the state’s Medi-Cal program for the poor, among other bipartisan moves.

“Just opposing people or being angry because California isn’t the place that it once was isn’t a winning strategy,” he said.

Even those within the party who supported Mayes’ efforts to broaden its appeal thought he picked the wrong issue to do it.

Kevin Spillane, a GOP consultant who refers to himself as a “big tent guy,” said jobs, the economy, education, taxes and racial inclusion all would have resonated more with the “non-Republicans” the party is trying to attract to have a future in California.

“It doesn’t mean taking the conventional Republican orthodoxy on those issues is the correct approach,” he said, noting that Donald Trump won the presidency last year flouting many standard Republican positions. “Those looking for ideological purity will see that our registration will be below 20 percent in five years.”

But Spillane believes the infighting – which he regards as a clash of personalities more than an honest disagreement over agenda – did far more damage than cap-and-trade to Republicans’ chances of electoral success next year: “Now it’s time for the party in totality to come together.”

One consultant who has long worked to expand the party’s base felt that even in his ouster, Mayes had managed to keep Assembly Republicans on his forward-facing track.

Conservatives who want “burn the damn place down” at a hint of bipartisanism and retreat to a “one-issue party” of cutting taxes may have led the charge against Mayes, Mike Madrid said. But there will be a peaceful leadership transition to Assemblyman Brian Dahle of Nubieber, an ally of Mayes.

“That unquestionably shows the party is progressing,” he said. “The party officials have a lot more sophistication than to succumb to the reactionary party activists.”

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff