For California’s GOP, Image Rebranding is a Must

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The California Republican Party is facing a serious “come to Jesus” moment.  After multiple unsuccessful election cycles, the Golden State GOP has been searching for answers: electing a new chairman – former state Sen. Jim Brulte, known for his pragmatic tendencies – and developing various candidate recruitment and training programs such as GROW Elect, California Trailblazers, and Project for California’s Future.

However, while the lack of a bench and a deficit in campaign operations are issues, California Republicans have a serious brand problem that also has to be addressed. And in that regard, they’re not alone: the California Democratic Party likewise doesn’t have a stellar image. According to a recent California Business Roundtable/Pepperdine University poll, Golden State Democrats only have 0.3 point net favorability rating. Independents actually have a net 10-point unfavorable opinion of the Democratic Party.  However, Republicans are viewed extremely unfavorably – a 32 point unfavorable net rating.

The problem likely stems from that fact that the two parties are very much outside the state’s ideological mainstream. While just 12% of Californians call themselves very liberal and roughly 10% say they’re very conservative, the state parties reside firmly in the extremes.  Boris Shor of the University of Chicago and Nolan McCarthy of Princeton University have developed an ideology mapping metric for state legislatures across all 50 states.  The two graphics below are pulled from their 2011 American Political Science Review paper.

The first is a box plot for all 50 states showing the ideology scores of both the state’s Republican and Democratic parties.  The states are ordered from most conservative, overall, to most liberal; California is at the bottom, but most interestingly, not only is the Democratic Party among the most liberal in the country, the state’s Republican Party is also among the most conservative in the country.

The second graphic shows the magnitude of the gap between the two parties – California having the widest of any state.

State Legislature Box PlotPartisan Gap

Rather than punish both parties equally for their ideological extremes, Californian voters have increasingly sided with the very liberal Democratic Party over the very conservative Republican Party. As we’ve discussed before, an average Republican candidate running statewide in California can only expect to get about 44% of the two-party vote compared to 56% for an average Democrat.  Obviously, the GOP brand has gone stale.

In an attempt, then, to determine the actual competitiveness of the California political landscape, I adapted the Cook PVI, which illustrates how Republican/Democratic a congressional district is, and created a California version.  I calculated two separate PVI’s; one using the 2010 gubernatorial race and the other using the California 2012 Presidential results.  For purposes of this discussion, I’ve taken the average of the two.  Districts within Cook PVI R+5 to D+5 are considered toss-up and R+10 to D+10 are competitive, but considering the extensive Democratic lean of California (approximately D+10 Cook PVI), it is highly unrealistic that marginal adjustments by the Republican Party would be enough to make Democratic leaning CA PVI districts competitive.

Therefore, the table below shows the Congressional, state Senate, and state Assembly districts that are within the R+0 to R+10 spectrum.

California Districts

Many of the districts listed are top 2014 priorities for national and state Republicans, but many others would never be considered pick-up opportunities.  Among the three chambers, only 7 districts have Republican representatives and many of these Republicans are there because of extenuating circumstances. Meanwhile, the Democrats representing these districts are overall no less liberal than their caucuses.

While the facts show that both the Democratic and Republican parties in California should shift toward the center, even just marginally, to fall more in line with national norms (and the state’s overall electorate), it is highly unlikely the Democratic Party will do so for one reason: they’re winning elections up and down the ticket. If, however, the California Republican Party can make districts competitive that conventional wisdom suggests shouldn’t be, it might force the Democratic Party to readjust as well.  However, all of the candidate recruitment, training, and operational changes won’t help structurally and securely expand the map in California for the GOP – refreshing the brand is the only long-term solution.

It’s not that conservatism is an absolute deal breaker in California, but poor past decisions and stubbornness by Republican leaders turned the party’s image stale, visionless, and out-of-touch.   The Republican Party doesn’t need to become Democrat-lite to appeal to Californian voters; it does, however, require a face-lift.

For instance, instead of repeatedly calling for tax cuts, which has become cliché, the GOP should repackage the tax issue as a matter of economic growth and an issue of fairness.  Almost a plurality of Californians think the California economy is doing worse than the rest of country and 78% of Californians think taxes are too high in California – including 82% of Independents.

Instead of haphazardly demanding spending cuts, which Democrats can easily demagogue, turn the issue into one of government waste and inefficiency.  64% of Californians give the state Legislature a failing grade on their managing of “limiting waste and inefficiency in government” – that increases to 69% among Independents – and approximately 54% of Californians believe the state government wastes a lot of the tax revenue, increasing to 59% among Independents.

Instead of attacking public employees’ pensions, make the conversation about broken promises and worker welfare.  62% of Californians give the state a failing grade on “addressing the state’s unfunded retiree pension and healthcare liability.” And turn the education debate toward an issue of quality and opportunity and away from the teachers’ union.  Almost half of Californians give the state a failing grade on “providing access to quality public education” with another 1/3rd giving the state a C.

This list goes on, but the concept is simple.  Take conservatism back to its roots of limited, smart, and efficient government that fosters growth, opportunity, and liberty.

Through simple, but focused and coordinated messaging changes, the California GOP can refurbish its image without violating its principles, working to close the ideological gap.  And that, in turn, could make the aforementioned districts listed far more competitive.

California faces serious challenges, most of which cannot be fully addressed until the state has a functioning two-party system.  And because the state’s Republican Party is on the losing end, it’s up to the GOP to make the first move.