White racial resentment may be a powerful political asset elsewhere in the country, but that tactic could cost Republicans dearly in the Golden State.
“California simply seems like less fertile ground than the rest of the country,” said Isaac Hale, a UC Davis political scientist and co-author of an upcoming study on how white racial resentment played to Republican advantage in the 2018 midterms, despite the Democrats’ historic wave election.
That study found that actions such as when President Donald Trump told four American citizen congresswomen to “go back” to their home country play well with white voters, particularly those with less education.
A big part of what makes California different is its demographics, Hale said.
“While the United States is 60 percent non-Hispanic white, California is only 37 percent non-Hispanic white. The results of our research suggest that the kind of racialized appeals used by Trump and other Republican candidates are effective among white voters, which are a substantially smaller portion of the California electorate compared to the rest of the country,” Hale said.
Hale said that the overall Democratic lean in California “makes it very difficult for the GOP to make inroads by only appealing to a racially conservative subset of the white minority in the state.”
Democrats in 2018 flipped seven Republican-held congressional districts and claimed supermajorities in both houses of the Legislature. Democrats also hold every statewide elected office.
There are several high-profile races where Republicans could look to regain ground in California in 2020.
Former Rep. David Valadao, Republican from Hanford, has filed to challenge Democratic Rep. TJ Cox, D-Fresno, a rematch from 2018. Cox defeated Valadao with fewer than 1,000 votes in that election.
A district centered around Modesto held by Democratic Rep. Josh Harder could prove another heated battleground. Harder has raised more than $1.5 million in the first half of this year to prepare for 2020.
Then there’s Orange County, where Republicans are lining up to take on newly elected incumbents Rep. Harley Rouda, D-Newport Beach, Katie Porter, D-Irvine, Mike Levin, D-Vista and Gil Cisneros, D-Phelan.
With so many close races at stakes, Hale said that appeals to white resentment could carry limited success.
“It is possible that employing racial resentment may energize some GOP voters in California, and even win over some white voters ideologically closer to the Democratic candidate — but in most districts that is simply not going to be sufficient,” he said. “In less white districts (or districts where white voters are particularly racially liberal), explicit racial appeals to white voters may do more harm than good for the Republican candidate.”
That goes for state races as well, he said.
“While California’s red Assembly and Senate districts are whiter than the state as a whole, the GOP needs to make inroads in more diverse districts in order to break the Democratic supermajority (let alone contest statewide offices),” Hale said.
He said that “barring a moderating shift in the state party’s brand,” it likely will take a wave election to crack open the Democratic supermajority in the Legislature.
“2020 is unlikely to be that election for California Republicans, given President Trump’s unpopularity in the state,” Hale said.