|Republican Party in California Is Caught in Cycle of Decline|
By ADAM NAGOURNEY
Published: July 22, 2012
LOS ANGELES — This would seem a moment of great opportunity for California Republicans. The state has become a national symbol of fiscal turmoil and dysfunction, the Legislature is nearly as unpopular as Congress and Democrats control every branch of government.
An Orange County rally in June 2010 for Meg Whitman, the Republican nominee for governor that year, and Carly Fiorina, the Senate nominee. Both women are wealthy executives.
But instead, the state party — once a symbol of Republican hope and geographical reach and which gave the nation Ronald Reagan (and Richard M. Nixon) — is caught in a cycle of relentless decline, and appears in danger of shrinking to the rank of a minor party.
“We are at a lower point than we’ve ever been,” said Representative Kevin McCarthy, the No. 3 Republican in the United States House of Representatives. “It’s rebuilding time.”
Registered Republicans now account for just 30 percent of the California electorate, and are on a path that analysts predict could drop them to No. 3 in six years, behind Democrats, who currently make up 43 percent, and independent voters, with 21 percent.
“It’s no longer a statewide party,” said Allan Hoffenblum, who worked for 30 years as a Republican consultant in California. “They are down to 30 percent, which makes it impossible to win a statewide election. You just can’t get enough crossover voters.”
“They have alienated large swaths of voters,” he said. “They have become too doctrinaire on the social issues. It’s become a cult.”
There is not a single Republican holding statewide office. Democrats overwhelmingly control the State Assembly and Senate. In interviews, Republicans were unable to come up with any names of credible candidates preparing to run for statewide office. By contrast, the Democratic bench is bustling with ambitious younger politicians who are waiting for their moment. It is a giant turnaround since 2003, when Arnold Schwarzenegger knocked out the Democratic governor, Gray Davis, in a recall election and set out to build a more moderate Republican Party.
Republicans said their problems were made worse this year by the emphasis during the Republican presidential primaries on social issues, particularly tough immigration measures and opposition to abortion rights. That focus could make it tougher to win independent voters who are crucial to any Republican resurgence in California.
“The national party is becoming a party of very enthusiastic social conservatives driven by Southerners,” said Bill Whalen, a fellow with the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University. “It’s a problem if you’re an independent voter in California. If you think about the Republican Party, what national figure comes to mind? George W. Bush or Newt Gingrich.”
Republican leaders say they are hopeful that they can turn things around because of the troubles befalling Gov. Jerry Brown and the Democratic-controlled Legislature.
“You can only have 11 percent unemployment for so long before the populace gets tired of the people in power,” said Tom Del Beccaro, the Republican Party chairman. “The Democrats are in a lot of trouble because they’ve had the governorship, the Assembly and the Senate, and the budget is way out of balance; unemployment is third-highest in the nation.”
“They don’t have any plans related to these problems, other than higher taxes,” he said. “And the issues are coming our way because the biggest issues are budget and taxes.”
Mr. McCarthy said the Republican Party would be able to turn itself around if it recruited stronger candidates and presented an alternative agenda for the state.
“I actually believe in the next two and a half years the Republican Party is going to become much stronger,” he said. “What we have to do is build candidates who look for solutions, so you can talk about our conservative solutions, but you can’t just say no.”
The party’s decline in California has occurred even as Republicans have prospered elsewhere. In 2010 — when Republicans made huge gains across the nation — they were wiped out here in races for governor and the Senate. In 1994, the last time Republicans enjoyed a national sweep, Pete Wilson, a Republican, was elected governor by a large margin, but Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, barely won re-election.
“The institution of the California Republican Party, I would argue, has effectively collapsed,” said Steve Schmidt, a Republican consultant who was a senior adviser to Mr. Schwarzenegger. “It doesn’t do any of the things that a political party should do. It doesn’t register voters. It doesn’t recruit candidates. It doesn’t raise money. The Republican Party in the state institutionally has become a small ideological club that is basically in the business of hunting out heretics.”
“When you look at the population growth, the actual party is shrinking,” Mr. Schmidt said. “It’s becoming more white. It’s becoming older. “
Over the past decade, Republicans have turned to wealthy business executives like Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina to run for statewide office. But the party’s troubled demographics, as well as the history of these self-financed candidates getting roughed up by the political process, may give pause to other wealthy Californians, party officials said.
The slide began in 1994, when Republicans rallied around a voter initiative, Proposition 187, that would have made it illegal for the government to provide services for undocumented aliens. That campaign created a political rupture with Hispanics at the very moment when their numbers were exploding.
“The manner in which immigration is handled nationally presents a challenge to Republicans in California,” Mr. Del Beccaro said.
Republicans said they feared becoming further marginalized in November should President Obama win the state by a big margin, sweeping Democratic candidates into office in the Assembly and Senate. (There is one bright spot: Republicans seem poised to lose fewer seats than once feared in the state’s Congressional delegation.)
Kimberly Nalder, a political science professor at California State University, Sacramento, says Republicans in California are still too closely identified with socially conservative positions — on immigration, the environment, abortion and gay rights — that have put them outside the mainstream in a changing electorate.
“They’re just blind to the future,” she said. “We’re passing the tipping point now, and they are not realizing that.”
This year in San Diego, Nathan Fletcher, a Republican state assemblyman, quit the party to run, unsuccessfully, as an independent for mayor. “There are a series of issues where I am just fundamentally out of line with the current Republican Party in California — reasonable environmental protection, equal rights and marriage equality, immigration,” he said. “And it’s not a party that is welcoming of dissent on those issues.”
What is frustrating for many Republicans is that this should be a moment when they can step in. Though voters might have diverged from Republican Party orthodoxy on social issues, they have, almost without exception, voted against initiatives on the ballot to raise taxes over the past decade. Two weeks ago, Democrats pushed through approval of nearly $9 billion in financing for a high-speed rail project from Los Angeles to San Francisco that polls suggest has grown increasingly unpopular since it was approved by voters in 2008.
“While there are always woes in California, now is worse than ever,” said Connie Conway, the Assembly minority leader. “Now the majority party in the Legislature has decided that this train to nowhere is a good idea. A lot of people are really questioning that these days. Californians are waking up.”