It may be difficult to envision now, but a half-century ago, coastal California – from San Diego on the south to tiny Del Norte County on the north – was a Republican bastion.
Democrats held some legislative and congressional seats along the coast, but Republicans dominated – and even prospered in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Since 1992, when Democrat Bill Clinton won the state’s trove of presidential electoral votes, no Republican has even tried to win in California.
The two parties were closely matched in statewide terms, with Democrats holding sway in inner-city Los Angeles and the state’s more rural regions, including the Central Valley and the northeastern corner. The Legislature and the congressional delegation were fairly evenly divided and Ronald Reagan’s two elections as governor demonstrated the GOP’s ability to win statewide offices.
Obviously, things have changed a lot since those days. Republicans now hold just a few congressional or legislative districts that touch the ocean and their much-diminished ranks are otherwise confined to former Democratic territory in inland Southern California, the Central Valley and the aforementioned northeastern corner.
One of the most spectacular political evolutions has been in Los Angeles County, which has a quarter of the state’s population.
Although nominally Democratic in voter registration, LA County was essentially neutral in statewide political contests for decades. Its blue collar workers, especially in the defense industry, may have been union members and registered Democrats, but they often voted for Republicans such as Reagan.
Even after the big territorial swap – coastal California turning blue and inland California becoming red – LA County’s functional neutrality allowed the GOP to run up strings of statewide victories. In the 1980s alone, Republicans won the governorship twice, two U.S. Senate contests and three state presidential votes.
However, as the Cold War ended in the 1990s and Southern California’s defense industry dried up, hundreds of thousands of its skilled machinists and other workers fled the state. Los Angeles saw an influx of immigrants, mostly from Latin America and Asia, who changed its cultural ambiance and eventually tilted its politics leftward.
Los Angeles’ cultural evolution also occurred statewide, albeit less intensively, and Republicans reacted by shifting right on such issues as abortion and immigration. That alienated not only California’s newcomers, but many white suburbanites and shrank the GOP’s base to a fraction of the potential electorate.
The state’s shift to Democratic domination is underscored by its record on presidential contests. Until 1992, the state had voted Democratic just twice since World War II. Since 1992, when Democrat Bill Clinton won the state’s trove of presidential electoral votes, no Republican has even tried to win in California and in 2016, Hillary Clinton walloped Donald Trump by three-plus million votes.
That landslide set the stage for what could be another shift that would erode the Republican presence even more.
Clinton won in half of the 14 California congressional districts held by Republicans, and Democrats harbor high hopes of flipping several of those seats this year – particularly two or three of the few remaining GOP seats on the coast in San Diego and Orange counties.
Republican leaders are desperately trying to stave off the Democratic assault. They hope that having John Cox, a GOP candidate, on the ballot for governor, even if he has scant odds of winning, and a measure to repeal the state’s new gas taxes will spur enough Republican voting to save the seats.
They know that with GOP voter registration now lower than no-party-preference voters, losing several congressional districts would be a crushing blow, making the party completely irrelevant in California and completing its transformation into a one-party state.
Dan Walters is a columnist at CALmatters. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.