Prescriptions for California Republicans

Monday, December 3, 2012

Mitt Romney’s loss of the Presidential election, which confounded expectations of many Republicans and the conservative news media, has set in motion a tidal wave of commentary both from inside and outside the Beltway on what ails the Republican Party.

California deserves its share of blame.  After all, Romney lost nationwide by fewer than 4% (50.9%-47.4%) – much of that attributable to his 20% margin of defeat in the Golden State. Indeed, nearly two-thirds (64%)of President Obama’s victory-margin in popular votes nationally is attributable to California alone.

Let’s face facts:  California hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate or elected a U.S. Senate candidate since 1988.  Since then, only three Republicans have been elected to statewide offices on more than once occasion – Arnold Schwarzenegger, Pete Wilson and Bill Jones.  Some would scratch Arnold from that list, given that he famously rebranded himself as “post-partisan” and replaced a stable of Republican aides and appointees with Democrats for the last five years of his tenure.

This is just part of the long-term trend of declining Republican influence in California. Republicans have gone from 41-vote control of the State Assembly briefly in 1995 to a 55-25 minority, and from 15 seats to 11 seats in the State Senate, their lowest number in the upper house in 50 years. Add to that ledger a loss of four seats in the Congressional delegation, down to 15 – the lowest number of Republican seats held since 1961, when California had 23 fewer congressional districts. How low has the GOP sunk? Los Angeles County still has more than one million registered Republican voters, but only three partisan representatives with substantial portions of their districts in the county (one state senator; two assemblymen).

The California Republican Party (CRP) is in more trouble than almost every institution in California, except . . . California’s state government and local governments and the educational, transportation, pension and water delivery systems these governments purport to manage.  Though the New York Times has detected a glimmer of hope that the state government is on the road to recovery, it would be media heresy to find anything to cheer about the Republican Party’s chances.

GOP Rebounding and Repositioning

Can Republicans regain credibility and respectability, if not majority status again in California?  I don’t pretend to have a prescription for regaining political control in the short term, but there are some steps that Republicans can take to rebound and position themselves to attract support and achieve success when the Democrats’ policies drive California closer to bankruptcy and total dysfunction.

That would begin with:

1)  Politically Savvy Leadership. First, Republicans need to pick a respected and politically savvy figure to lead the state party.  At present, the party has lost the confidence of the donor community in Sacramento, Southern California and the Bay Area. Traditional Republican donors in these areas (conservatives as well as moderates) are eager to have a state-party leader who respects their views and doesn’t ignore them or take their views and their money for granted.

The business community also seeks such a state party leader. The business community has turned from supporting Republican candidates to finding “moderate” Democrats to support, a turn that was inevitable as the GOP continued to lose seats in the Legislature.  The business community’s flight has accelerated with the new Legislature’s Democratic supermajority control of the State Senate and State Assembly. That flight can be reversed.  The business community needs to buttress its defense against new anti-business legislation and business taxes the new Legislature will threaten to impose.  To do so, it will need to support Republicans in competitive Assembly and Senate districts in 2014 as a firewall for its “moderate Democrat” strategy.  The Party and the business community need to recruit viable candidates for those targeted Assembly seats that were lost this year that ought to be regained in 2014 when the incumbents won’t be aided by the 2012 Obama surge. Nationally, the Republican Party turned to Ray Bliss, an old-hand technician, to lead it after Barry Goldwater’s defeat in 1964. California Republicans turned to Dr. Gaylord Parkinson, the author of the famous 11th Commandment (yes, he coined it – not Ronald Reagan), for such leadership in California.  California Republicans need to turn to another respected figure to help the state party recapture credibility and embark on steps that will need to be taken to restore the GOP’s brand and standing among California voters.

2)  New Technologies to Revitalize the Base. The CRP has lost its volunteer activist base that excelled at getting out the vote with effective door-to-door and telephone campaigns in the 1960s and 1970s. Some of this is due to an aging activist population and some to changes in the workforce (more women are working outside the home). To rebuild an effective turnout operation, the state GOP needs to engage its younger, tech-savvy generation to help build effective political networking through social media and the internet and help train its elders how to use these tools effectively – much as the Obama campaign harnessed technology to re-elect the president.

In California, Republicans have lost the edge on their Democrat competition at the voter-turnout game.  The proof of this is disappointing GOP turnout in the Inland Empire and Central Valley counties and Orange County – ostensibly, California’s Republican strongholds.

As the 2012 results showed, the CRP is leaking support on both its right flank and moderate flank.  On the right, some conservative voters are fed up with perceived Republican softness on budget, deficit control and immigration – and believe “there’s not a dime’s worth of difference” between the two parties. Net result: they stay home. Meanwhile, some Republican voters are dismayed by an alleged “Christian right” control over the party’s positions on social issues. Net result: they defect.

Regaining support among the disaffected right and disaffected center won’t be easy. While some think that the California GOP can re-attract these disaffected voters by concentrating on economic issues they might agree on, that may not work.  The Tea Party stood for many of the positions of those on the disaffected right, yet Tea Party influence on the 2010 election doesn’t seem to have pulled them back toward the Republican Party.  There’s no evidence that increased focus on economic and debt issues after the 2010 election pulled any of the disaffected moderates back either.

For a long time, the CRP has provided scant attention and resources to communicating its message and values to Bay Area and Los Angeles County voters. Over 1.5 million registered Republican voters reside in these areas, yet they seldom hear from the state party.  Not surprisingly, scarce resources have been spent from election-to-election only to turn out likely Republican voters in competitive races, and Republicans have had very few competitive races in these areas.  Hearing nothing from the party, voters in these areas hear only from the news media and Democrats – and, surprise, they’re not telling the Republican story. The state party needs to find ways to resume communicating to these isolated Republican voters. That means teaming with local GOP groups (the Los Angeles Lincoln Club; the Lincoln Club of Northern California), focusing on electing promising Republicans to local non-partisan offices and supporting ballot measures such as San Jose’s pension reform measure.

3)  Thinking Strategically, More Nimbly.  Two bad strategic decisions may have been most responsible for the crushing defeat of California Republicans at the polls in November.

In 2011, Legislative Republicans flirted with making a deal with Governor Brown on putting a tax increase measure on a special-election ballot.  The effort failed, in part because Brown was unable to deliver the big changes some Republican legislators had proposed – and, in part, because most legislative Republicans weren’t willing to make any deal involving taxes. However, the tax deal wasn’t to enact taxes, only to put a tax proposal up for special-election vote. Notwithstanding the fact that a similar special tax election resulted in the resounding defeat of three tax measures on the ballot in May 2009, Republicans gambled away that advantage by refusing to deal.  As a result, Governor Brown went to the ballot in November 2012 with a tax increase proposal that was worse in its details and effects than what he was bargaining to put on the ballot in 2011 – and seeking its approval from an electorate swelled by Obama supporters. Republicans failed to think nimbly and strategically about this, and the results proved to be tragically bad.

The other blunder: in 2011, Orange County conservatives and Republican activists wrote, circulated and qualified Proposition 32, the “Stop Special Interest Money” initiative.  Prop 32 targeted Big Labor’s political fundraising scheme whereby hundreds of millions annually are skimmed from government employee paychecks without their consent to fund unions’ political domination of California state and local governments.  Proposition 32 was qualified for the June 2012 primary election ballot where, it was believed, a smaller and more conservative electorate would enact it.  In August 2011, however, Legislative Democrats passed SB 202, which took all but two measures off the June 2012 primary ballot and pushed the rest, including Prop 32, to the November general election ballot. SB 202 could easily have been stayed from going into effect by qualification of a referendum against it – and papers were filed to start a referendum.  However, none of the affected parties chose to push the referendum and it died.  Over $50 million was spent to try to pass Proposition 32, yet a million or so that could have qualified a referendum against SB 202 couldn’t be found. Republicans and the business community failed to think strategically, the result being plenty of collateral damage (Prop 32’s, a boost to Gov. Brown’s tax initiative and the Democrats’ effort to earn legislative supermajorities).

4)  Engaging with California’s Latino and Asian Communities. The state party’s leadership needs to send peace signals immediately to Latinos and Asians, and seek common ground on Republican values issues that resonate with those communities. Tom Del Beccaro, the current CRP chairman, has made outreach to Latinos a priority, but the effort needs to get beyond public relations to real initiatives on education and immigration reforms.

The Republican group Grow Elect has actively promoted the election of Latino Republicans to non-partisan offices, helping elect some 21 to local offices in 2012.  These efforts must be increased, with party financial support. Former CRP Chairman Shawn Steel, whose wife Michelle is California’s highest-elected Republican (she’s a member of the State’s Board of Equalization), has promoted initiatives with the Asian-American community to raise the prominence of local elected Asian American Republicans as party spokespersons and Party committee members. This outreach should include Indian-Americans in Silicon Valley and the Central Valley.

California Republicans need to focus on education reforms that promote accountability and educational achievement that offer hope to Latinos, as well as other minorities, that their children will receive a quality education and job skills.  School choice and protecting the existence and growth of charter schools within the public education system should be promoted as alternatives to the dismal failures of union-dominated public school systems around the state.

Finally, Republicans in the Golden State need to get out front on immigration reforms, including those that offer temporary, renewable visas not only to expand the H-1B program for foreigners to fill high tech job openings but also for agricultural workers and immigrants in other fields where there is a certified need for workers.  The NAFTA treaty visa system, where Canadian and Mexican natives can get a visa if they demonstrate they have a job offer here, provides a model for such a program.  Republicans also need to embrace the equities of a DREAM Act that affords educational opportunities to the children of illegal immigrants who were brought to California by their parents and have no culpability for their parents’ actions, as well as the program that allows foreign nationals who serve in the military a path to citizenship as part of the nation’s historic welcoming hand to immigrants.

If red-state Texas’ Republicans can operate positively with these programs, why can’t California’s Republicans, many of whom look to Texas as a model for how to attain and keep political influence and relevance?

Chuck Bell is the longtime counsel to the California Republican Party and served as outside counsel to many California Republican elected officials. These views are his own and do not represent the views of any of his clients.