Learn to appeal to 21st century Californians.
California has undergone a dramatic transformation over the last fifty years but not so the California Republican Party. Today, only 25.9% of Californians are registered as Republicans, down more than eight points of registration in ten years. At this pace, Republicans will soon be the third most popular party registration in California, behind Democratic and No Party Preference. Not a single statewide elected official is Republican and the party is a super-minority in both houses of the legislature. With an unpopular Republican as president and the number of new registrants willing to identify as Republican at record lows, in the absence of change the California Republican Party has lower to go.
It’s not a surprising outcome given that the CRP’s social and environmental views are now so out of step with the median voter in California. Californians overwhelmingly support LGBTQ and abortion rights yet not only does the CRP not support those rights, its platform still defines marriage as “a union between one man and one woman.” Worse, party activists attack GOP legislators who show moderation on social issues, which makes it even harder for those legislators to represent 21st century Californians. Similar infighting is occurring on environmental issues. A majority of California voters believe in taking action to address climate change yet CRP activists rebel against any attempt to adopt more electorally viable environmental policies. Recently Republicans even removed their State Assembly leader because he voted in favor of a cap-and-trade program for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. By doing so the leader helped replace more expensive and less effective command-and-control regulation with a market-based system yet party activists instantly called for his removal from leadership and some even sought his removal from office. Republican legislators watching from the sidelines learned a clear lesson: evolve at your risk.
Republican state legislators in California have learned they must individually hew to the party line for self-preservation despite the fact that doing so collectively dooms the California Republican Party to decline with no end in sight.
I am not writing this to save the California Republican Party. As president of Govern For California, a network of political philanthropists from all parties, my interest is in saving California from the corrupt influence of government employee unions, corporations and other cronies and protecting education, courts, parks, social services, the environment and taxpayers from the devastation wrought by legislators of any party who do the bidding of those cronies. Our job is to help elect and support pro-citizen members of the State Legislature on any side of the aisle. But the California Republican Party is making that job harder because all too often their losses are to candidates who represent cronies instead of citizens. If that continues, public education will worsen, the achievement gap will grow, the fiscal situation will deteriorate, taxes will continue to rise even as public services decline, health spending will balloon even as health outcomes don’t improve, prison personnel costs will incline even as the number of prisoners declines, and corporate cronyism will flourish as legislation is written narrowly to benefit the politically connected. California’s outstanding public higher education system will be de-funded along with our parks and infrastructure, housing costs will continue to rise and opportunity for young people, especially those without a college education, will continue to shrink. The failure of California’s government will eventually have impacts on social order in our state.
Californians are with you on fiscal and economic issues but not on social and environmental issues.
While the CRP is out of step with the median voter on social and environmental issues, the same is not true on fiscal and economic opportunity issues. Those matters are not at the forefront now because California’s budget and economy always look rosy during bull markets no matter who is in charge of the state. But because California already lags the nation in employment, state tax revenues are closely correlated with investment markets, and major school districts are already in financial distress even during boom times, that will change during the next downturn when unemployment rises and declining tax revenues combine with years of dangerous inaction on unfunded retirement liabilities to result in even greater crowd-out of education and other programs of critical importance to the median California voter. The California Republican Party should then have a chance to appeal to that voter on economic and fiscal issues — but only if it can evolve on social and environmental issues.
Republicans also need to resist blaming other factors for the party’s decline. Extremists blame the Top Two Primary system, and that argument picked up steam among them when no Republican appeared on the general election ballot in the 2016 race for US Senator, but Top Two Primary helps the average California Republican. In races where two Democrats make it into the general election, Top Two shows that no Republican is strong enough to win the general election and then, in the general election, Republicans still retain power and can help the pro-citizen Democrat to win. Top Two Primary also helps to eliminate extreme Republicans who would have prevailed in a closed party primary (in 2016 a Republican candidate for the state legislature who advocates stoning women to death would have been his party’s nominee in one race if there had been a closed party primary). Republicans also need to remember that they have been complicit in California’s fiscal problems. Ronald Reagan was the first governor to grant collective bargaining rights to public employees, Pete Wilson was the cause of the ballot initiative that led to a disastrous change in governance of state pension funds, and plenty of Republican legislators voted for SB400, a massive, retroactive and unfunded pension increase.
If they want to be relevant, Republicans must support pro-citizen candidates for the state legislature who can appeal to 21st century Californians.