The California Republican party is suffering an identity crisis. It has become so dire that Republicans across the state can’t decide if they like Steve Bannon (who spoke at the 2017 state conference) or losing to the Democrats more. The party has not enjoyed a double majority in the state assembly and senate (save one session in the 1970s) since the late 1950s and has, in the recent past, only held a majority in the state assembly from 1994–1996. Republicans today hold no major state offices, did not have a senatorial candidate get to the top two during the open primary of 2016 or 2018, and have fewer registered voters than independents (labeled as “Decline to State” in CA). Even worse, for the foreseeable future, it looks as though Republicans will be blocked from breaking the supermajority the Democrats have in both the State Assembly and Senate.
Even in the face of annihilation, hardline California Republicans have been unable to tolerate Republicans working on bipartisan issues like a cap-and-trade renewal bill passed by the legislature during the summer of 2017, for which four key Republican votes proved crucial in its passing. The cap-and-trade system essentially allows for carbon credits to be traded on a free market and encourages incentives for green innovation. The bill was originally passed during the Republican governorship of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and national proponents of a cap-and-trade system include former Reagan-presidential cabinet members James Baker and George Schultz. This meant little to more climate-change-skeptical conservatives, and comments such as “[w]hen you capitulate to extreme left-wing policies, that’s not bipartisan, that’s surrender” typified the response from farther right elements of the party. The bill’s strongest Republican advocate, (former) Assembly Republican Minority Leader Chad Mayes, lost his leadership role because of the loud disgust emanating from his Republican opponents. What was the alternative, one may wonder, to this bill? It was an alternative certainly not discussed among California’s Republican hardliners, but according to a trusted source who works with both Democrats and Republicans in the Capitol, it would have been the empowering of the state’s air resource board to even greater heights of government bureaucratic control. It is clear to any Republican who thought a second time that the failure of this bill would have proven even more disastrous for businesses in the state. Hopefully a denial of reality has not become a California Republican tenet, though the jury is still out.
One of the clearest examples of the boneheaded politicking that has characterized the California Republican Party over the last few years was the attempted public disavowal of one of the four Republicans who voted in favor of the bill, Assemblywoman Catharine Baker of the East Bay. Winning in a district that carried Democratic Governor Jerry Brown by 25 percent in 2014, she represents the most endangered of species: a successful Republican in Bay Area politics. However, at a recent Republican state convention in October 2017, she was explicitly targeted by the California Tea Party. According to a friend who was involved in her campaign in 2016 and present at the convention, there was a serious debate on whether she should be denounced as a “RINO,” or “Republican in Name Only.” Oh, and Steve Bannon trashed both George Bush and John McCain at the same convention to warm applause, saying in all seriousness to the crowd that “[t]here’s not been a more destructive presidency than George Bush’s.” So much for the unwritten party commandment of respecting elder Republican statesman.
Why do Republicans continue down the road towards what will ultimately end up becoming a circular firing squad? Who knows. But one thing for certain is that the path paved to this point is unsustainable for a long-term survival (let alone thriving) of the relevancy of the California Republican Party. There is some hope, however, that things might turn around in the coming years. Courageous legislators like Kevin Kiley of Assembly District 6 have the opportunity to leverage their skillful articulation of the conservative cause into action by engaging with Democrats on bipartisan issues and encouraging other Republicans to care about California. Kiley, as a lifelong student of history, also understands the value of “applied history” in the world of policymaking. Ultimately, the key opportunity for a conservative revival will happen when the state begins to really feel the pain of continued pension mismanagement, lackluster educational outcomes and stifling taxes on what remains of the middle class. To paraphrase Reagan, that will be the chance to make them see the light, though in this case they will have already felt the heat.
There is much to do in resurrecting the state of Reagan. A deep reform of the California Republican Party must happen through a combination of grassroots engagement with disillusioned voters and a will to recast the party as interested in the success of the everyman.
— Max Minshull ’20
Contact Max Minshull at mminshul ‘at’ stanford.edu