Bill Whalen

California GOP can find lessons in Illinois, Wisconsin

Lawmakers applaud Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner before he delivers his budget address to a joint session of the Legislature on Feb. 18. Bill Whalen says Rauner provides a lesson for California Republicans.
Lawmakers applaud Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner before he delivers his budget address to a joint session of the Legislature on Feb. 18. Bill Whalen says Rauner provides a lesson for California Republicans. The Associated Press

The California Republican Party kicks off its winter convention Friday, across the street from the state Capitol. The bad news is that’s the closest to the Governor’s Office that the state GOP is getting in the foreseeable future unless there’s a seismic shift in the political landscape.

And what could that be? Democratic infighting would be a helpful start, along with a steady diet of incompetent government.

But in a nation-state where long-suffering Republicans are a decided and declining minority, it’s time for them to think outside the box.

Better yet, they should look outside the box – in particular, in the directions of Illinois and Wisconsin.

Like California, they’re “blue” states (Illinois’ voter registration is 50 percent Democratic and 34 percent Republican – about the same as the 15-point partisan gap in California). They’re also examples of states where Republicans are learning to lead the charge in midterm elections and play defense in less advantageous, larger-turnout presidential years.

Let’s start with Wisconsin, where the role model for the California GOP may not be Gov. Scott Walker so much as it is Ron Johnson, the first-term Republican senator up for re-election in 2016.

Johnson pulled off an upset win in 2010, thanks to the novelty of the tea party and that year’s voter backlash against Obamacare. Now facing an uphill struggle in a likely rematch with Democrat Russ Feingold, Johnson is adapting to a changed landscape. He’s downplaying his tea party ties, calling for bipartisan tax reform back in Washington and admitting that repealing Obamacare is an exercise in futility. Johnson is forever holding town hall meetings, while hoping to benefit from the same campaign network that has propelled Walker into the national conversation as a likely presidential candidate.

The lesson for the California GOP – when sailing into bad political weather, build a reliable turnout model and tack with the wind.

As for Illinois, the avatar is first-year Gov. Bruce Rauner, the state’s first Republican chief executive since 1998. Talk about inheriting a mess. At $100 billion or more, Illinois has the most underfunded retirement system among all states. In the Land of Lincoln, public pensions devour about one-fourth of all current general state tax dollars.

Rauner’s proposed fix is to move future retirement benefits for all state workers into the less-generous pension plan imposed on workers hired as recently as four years ago – a savings of $2.2 billion in the coming fiscal year, he claims, and $100 billion over 30 years. That includes a 401(k)-like plan for workers in return for a voluntary reduction in cost-of-living adjustments.

As in Wisconsin, when Walker took on public employee unions over collective bargaining rights, Rauner has been tagged as an enemy of the working class. And, like Walker, he’s suffered collateral poll damage; Rauner’s approval rating is down 9 percentage points, to 43 percent, since taking office in January. As such, he’s on course for a showdown that he may or may not win.

The lesson for the California GOP – choose the right fight and the public may follow.

Indeed, that battle might happen in the Golden State as soon as 2016 if a pension reform initiative finds its way to the ballot (a twisted and inflammatory title and summary for that measure being Kamala Harris’ parting gift as the state’s attorney general).

For California Republicans, it’s the gift of time – months in advance, should they go that initiative route, to explain how $340 million in long-term obligations are Sacramento’s boa constrictor.

Done right, maybe it gets California GOP back in the game – and maybe, one day, back into the Governor’s Office.

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

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