California Forum

To adapt, California GOP needs to move beyond Reagan

John Cox, Republican candidate for California governor, arrives at the US Grant Hotel in San Diego on Tuesday. Cox lost to Democrat Gavin Newsom.
John Cox, Republican candidate for California governor, arrives at the US Grant Hotel in San Diego on Tuesday. Cox lost to Democrat Gavin Newsom. The San Diego Union-Tribune via AP

One of the more curious post-election commentaries came last week from the opinion page of the Orange County Register and the supposition, by a Republican consultant, that John Cox’s gubernatorial campaign deserves praise, not burial.

The author’s point: Cox slipped past Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom in Orange County despite GOP misfortunes there (since the column was published, Newsom has taken a slim lead in the OC). Statewide, in GOP bastions, Cox tended to run ahead of his fellow Republicans – even incumbent members of Congress.

Then again, California Republicans looking for a silver lining in this election is sort of like Longstreet bragging that he was the better general than Pickett at Gettysburg.

Consider this math: the results aren’t final, but Newsom approaches 62% of the vote in what will be the most lopsided result since 1950.

The governor-elect’s margin of victory: about 2.8 million votes. Take away every vote Newsom received in Los Angeles and San Diego Counties and he still wins by a Floridian 100,000 votes. That’s due in part to Newsom’s 1.3 million-vote advantage in the nine counties surrounding the San Francisco Bay Area.


Ronald Reagan liked to joke the Orange County, with its conservative perma-class, was where “Republicans went to die”. That’s precisely what happened – Republican congressional candidacies perished countywide.

But Reagan last sought office in 1984. If you voted for the man as an 18-year-old first-timer, congratulations: you turned 50 in 2016. The 18-year-old who first voted in 1972 for another GOP icon, Orange County native Richard Nixon, will be Medicare-eligible next year.

bill whalen new.jpg
Bill Whalen

The point: times change and so do voting demographics. Bill Clinton may still believe in a place called Hope; earlier this month, 80% of voters in that Arkansas town voted for a Republican congressional candidate. Lyndon Johnson rests in peace near the banks of the Pedernales River and a stretch of central Texas that lent Beto O’Rourke, the new Democratic sensation, a mere 20% in his quest to unseat Sen. Ted Cruz.

This isn’t to gloss over or dismiss the Republican meltdown in California. The challenge, as talk of the rebuild begins, is to move past Reagan nostalgia and refocus on the here and the now.

For starters: Newsom’s Bay Area fortress.

Twenty years ago at the time, the nation was in the midst of an impeachment saga. Registered Republicans living to the immediate south of San Francisco – outraged either by Kenneth Starr’s meandering or Bill Clinton’s mendacity – had an outlet in the form of Tom Campbell, a GOP congressman in a San Jose-based district representing part of Silicon Valley.

By the late 1990’s, Campbell had paid his dues in Bay Area politics – an earlier stint in Congress; a brief stay in the State Senate. He was a perfect fit for his district: intellectual, socially moderate with a decidedly libertarian streak on fiscal and foreign entanglements.

If I wanted to talk Trump impeachment in 2019 or 2020 with the nearest Republican member of Congress? The nearest GOP congressman would be Rep. David Valadao, whose district is a two-hour drive into the Central Valley. But Valadao now trails in his race; the closest GOP presence to the Bay Area is now east and southeast of Sacramento – appropriately enough, in the general direction of Nevada . . . and Death Valley.

While Democrats celebrate Orange County as the “new blue” (let’s see if that holds up once Trump is out of the picture), it’s the Bay Area that intrigues. Move past the San Francisco bubble and it’s a story of a GOP disconnect with an electorate that’s educated, evolved and in search of solutions to everyday problems like health care, housing and transportation.

Republicans need to figure how to address that electorate and those concerns.

Otherwise, future California elections will be more of the same: GOP Death Valley days.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be reached at