Democratic and Republican partisans are still bickering over the national significance of Tuesday’s mixed-verdict midterm elections. I wish they’d give the country a rest from their political grudge match for a while, but at least few people are arguing about the California election results. Once again, the state’s Republicans — now holding registration levels below No Party Preference voters — got their clocks cleaned. It was embarrassing.
They were shut out on statewide offices, find themselves again holding super-minorities in both houses of the Legislature (pending final vote counts) and watched Democrats flip formerly safe Republican congressional districts. They even got clobbered on the gas-tax repeal ballot initiative that many Republicans had championed. Is it time to just disband the party?
Republicans are licking their wounds over those U.S. House losses, but those don’t concern me. The races were nationalized because of President Trump and most Californians aren’t particularly fond of him. Who is surprised that Dana Rohrabacher, a caricature of an Orange County Republican from a bygone era, appears to have lost? There are far more troubling takeaways from a “future of the party” perspective.
For starters, the GOP recruited a credible, appropriately conservative, interesting and wealthy candidate to run for governor. John Cox’s campaign could have been better, but he touched on solid Republican themes: the housing crisis, high taxes and regulations, decrepit infrastructure and the impact of Democratic policies on the working class and poor. He ended up with approximately the same vote totals (around 40 percent) as Neel Kashkari, the “throwaway” candidate that the GOP sacrificed to Jerry Brown in 2014.
Furthermore, Republican state Sen. Andy Vidak from the Hanford area lost his seat. A Spanish-speaking cherry farmer and cattle rancher, Vidak was a perfect Republican candidate for his heavily Latino San Joaquin Valley district. He lost anyway. It reminds me of when moderate Republican David Hadley, an ideal candidate for a tony Los Angeles district, lost re-election in 2016.
Such races are hard to take from the standpoint of anyone who would like at least some political competition in our increasingly one-party state, because they suggest that there’s nothing the GOP can realistically do to stay relevant in those districts anymore. It’s one thing when a conservative gets trounced in an increasingly liberal area, quite another when a thoughtfully chosen, ideologically appropriate and energetic candidate gets shown the door.
Realistically, in statewide races there probably is nothing the party can do, given the lopsided voter-registration margins and the tarnished Republican brand. At least for now. The only GOP-friendly candidates who did well in statewide races were former charter-school president Marshall Tuck for superintendent of public instruction, who appears to have won over union-backed Democrat Tony Thurmond. And Steve Poizner for insurance commissioner, who appears to have lost to Democratic state Sen. Ricardo Lara. Note that Tuck is a Democrat and Poizner, a former Republican insurance czar, ditched his GOP association and ran as No Party Preference.
What should the GOP do in California? This week, Assembly Republicans are apparently shaking up their leadership in a way that signals a turn to the right. It won’t matter. The party has long been consumed by its internal battles. There are the Arnold Schwarzenegger-style moderates, who fail to energize Republican voters or anybody else, for that matter. Then there are the conservatives, who champion law and order and other policies that might play better in Oklahoma. They stir up the dwindling Republican base, but show no ability to reach beyond it.
My argument has long been that the GOP needs to embrace a new bundle of issues that are, broadly speaking, libertarian-ish. Republicans have been doing some of this on housing, taxes, land-use regulations and licensing reforms, but they have taken the law-and-order route on criminal-justice reform, police accountability and open-records issues.
Almost all Republicans, for instance, voted last session against a law that would open police disciplinary records and another that would require agencies to release bodycam footage within 45 days of a use-of-force incident. In previous sessions, Republicans needed their arms twisted to support a bill to limit the ability of police to take private property without a conviction. If the GOP wants to be taken seriously on the issue of limited government, then they need to stop championing big-government policies promoted by police agencies and their unions.
Republicans also need to champion more thoughtful market-based solutions on environmental, infrastructure, debt and spending issues. They certainly could use some charismatic leaders. They need a more effective program for speaking to groups that don’t typically vote Republican, which these days refers to just about everyone. Then again, with Cox, the GOP tried some of that — and it didn’t work any better than any other strategy that the party has tried in recent years. As some other commentators are starting to conclude, maybe the simplest approach is best: GOP candidates should consider running for office without the Republican label.