Sporting starred and striped jackets and “Make America Great Again” hats, the California Republicans who gathered on election night in the U.S. Grant Hotel in downtown San Diego were in a remarkably chipper mood.
They cheered when the results came in from Florida, showing the GOP candidate won the narrow race for governor. They lustily booed and jeered when the face of San Francisco Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the likely next Speaker of the House, appeared on the monitor. If the assembled party activists were disappointed by the fact that, closer to home, they had lost their bid for every statewide office in the state, most seemed to take it in stride. Certainly, no one seemed particularly surprised.
Just as the polls predicted, John Cox, California’s Republican candidate for governor, lost the job to Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. In fact, none of the five Republicans vying for statewide office this year won their races. In the contests for the two remaining statewide offices and the U.S. Senate, a Republican candidate didn’t even make it onto the general election ballot. That leaves GOP voters without a single statewide representative for the third election cycle running.
Adding insult to injury, the only right-of-center candidate to mount a realistic statewide campaign was former Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, who got as far as he did after ditching the Republican brand entirely and running as a political independent.
With votes still being counted, Democrats also were within striking distance of reclaiming supermajorities in both the state Assembly and the Senate.
Maybe most painful of all was the fate of Proposition 6. This was the effort to repeal a recent increase in the gas tax—or, at the very least, to tap into the California voters’ historic dislike of higher taxes and expensive commutes, and convince them to once again vote Republican. Whether the appeal worked to gin up enough turnout to avert catastrophe in the GOP’s vulnerable congressional districts, was not yet clear. But the measure failed.
Republicans were quick to blame the defeat of Prop. 6 on Attorney General Xavier Becerra, a Democrat whose office was responsible for writing the text describing the measure on the ballot.
“A lot of people are going to wake up tomorrow very angry because they were tricked,” said San Diego Republican Party Chairman Tony Krvaric. He pointed to polling that showed voters approved of repealing the gas tax, but not Proposition 6. (An alternative explanation offered by Public Policy Institute of California president Mark Baldassarre: Voters approve of the low gas taxes in concept, but worried about the specific consequences of repeal).
“We won on the issue,” Carl DeMaio, who chaired the “Yes on 6” campaign, insisted. The lesson he took from the election wasn’t that the message itself was flawed, but that the party simply needs to fight harder.
“Every single election, every single race we are going to make the fraudulently stolen gas tax repeal initiative a main issue in regular elections and, yes, I predict, a couple recall elections very soon,” he said to the crowd. DeMaio has vowed to recall Becerra, as well as Democratic state Sens. Anthony Portantino and Richard Roth. He then led the crowd in a cheer of “We will fight!”
It was a cheer of defiance in the face of the declining fortunes for the GOP. That, of course, is not a new story. Earlier this year Republican registration among California voters dipped below those of political independents, making the party of Ronald Reagan the state’s third most popular political affiliation behind Democrat and “no thanks.”
But as national Republicans secured their grip on the U.S. Senate while surrendering control of the House, for California Republicans, the 2018 midterms do feel like a new low.
It’s been more than 130 years since Californians replaced a Democratic governor with another Democratic governor. And while Gov. Jerry Brown was a fiscal conservative by Sacramento standards, Newsom could be considered the stuff of Republican nightmares: a San Francisco progressive who supports single-payer healthcare, picks Twitter fights with the president and has flirted with the idea of reforming Proposition 13, the property tax-capping ballot measure that helped give birth to the modern conservative movement and the Reagan revolution.
“This will be the third time that higher taxes have won as an argument at the ballot in California,” said Bill Whalen, a former speechwriter for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. In 2012, voters approved Proposition 30’s “millionaire’s tax” and then voted to extend it again four years later.
The fact that the average California voter elected not just to stick it to millionaires this time, but agreed to pay higher taxes at the pump, might suggest that “taxes are not the third rail” of California politics that they once were, he said.
“I think Republicans forgot that it’s not 1978 anymore,” added Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College, referring to the year that voters approved Prop. 13 by a nearly 30 point margin. “That was a different time and a different electorate.”
For sure, California has changed a lot over the last 30 years. But even as the state has become more ethnically and racially diverse, the profile of the typical Republican voter has stayed relatively static: relatively white, old and affluent. Fortunately for the state GOP, this is the same demographic niche that most predictably turns out to vote. But in the absence of a message that might begin to convince Democrats and independents to switch parties, that may only postpone the inevitable. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, millennial voters are more likely than their elders to identify themselves as liberals, favor single payer healthcare, and oppose the president.
“This is a failing franchise,” said Whalen. He argued that the state party has two fundamental problems: “message and messengers.”
Cox himself lays the blame for whatever messaging shortcomings his own campaign experienced, at least in part, on the press.
“I wanted to have a dialogue and a discussion about what we needed to do to get rid of that money in politics,” he said. “At some point in time the message has got to get out and it’s got to be the media.”
But according to Whalen, the party puts itself at a disadvantage when the most prominent state Republican on this year’s ballot, Cox, was relatively unknown to most California voters prior to the final months of the campaign. Those further down on the ballot were—and likely still are—largely anonymous to all but the most politically engaged. With the exception of Steven Bailey, the retired El Dorado County judge who ran for attorney general, none of the party’s statewide candidates had experience in elected office.
“You’re counting on rookie quarterbacks to lead you to the Super Bowl,” said Whalen.
But even where experienced Republican political leaders do exist in California—city, county and congressional representatives increasingly concentrated in the exurbs and rural stretches away from the state’s populated coasts—it’s tough to convince an all-star player to join a team with such a lousy track record. A Republican hasn’t won statewide since 2006. And one of those candidates was Arnold Schwarzenegger, the rare “international movie star willing to run for office,” said Pitney. “But that bracket seems empty right now.”
In the lead up to the June primary election, state party insiders at least thought that they finally settled on an appealing message.
“I’m telling every candidate: When you run for office, you should come out…with ‘repeal the gas tax’ and ‘oppose the sanctuary state,’” Krvaric told CALmatters earlier this year.
But as late as of this spring, the majority of Californians said that they support state policies to protect undocumented immigrants.
Manuel Pastor, a sociology professor at the University of Southern California and the author of State of Resistance: What California’s Dizzying Descent and Remarkable Resurgence Mean for America’s Future, says that the state already tried that political line in the 1990s. In 1994, state voters passed Prop. 187, a ballot measure that would have stripped undocumented immigrants of state services had it not been struck down by the courts.
“That was when we should have been paying attention to how to restructure our economy instead of turning inward and blaming other people for the problems that we had,” he said. But while the nation as a whole may now be having its own “Prop. 187 moment,” brought on in part by national demographic trends that mirror California’s a few decades back, voters here have “wisened up from that experience,” he said.
As for the gas tax message, which Cox made one of the cornerstones of his campaign, the election results speak for themselves.
The gap between the preferences of the state party’s base and those of the average voter seem increasingly impossible to bridge. And yet that is precisely the task before any Republican candidate who hopes to compete statewide.
Cox faced his own version of this challenge with his on-again-off-again relationship with the president over the last year. In 2016, Cox, famously, did not vote for Trump, instead casting his ballot for the libertarian Gary Johnson. But in a lead up to the June primary, Cox noticeably warmed to the commander-in-chief, touting their biographical similarities and their mutual support for a southern border wall. It was the president’s endorsement that helped Cox secure a place on the general election ballot.
But once Cox found himself competing for a wider electoral audience, he began doing his best to distance himself from Trump’s more controversial policies and tweets, but without offending the president’s many supporters. “I’m not running for president,” he has said, employing a defense popular among Republicans across the state, and country.
The state party won’t have an easy time distancing itself from Washington D.C. anytime soon, even if it wanted to, said Graeme Boushey, a political science professor at the UC Irvine.
“With a national GOP that has itself moved towards more extreme politics, it’s hard for the state GOP to escape that shadow,” he said. Politics are increasingly nationalized, he continued. Many voters don’t know who represents them in Sacramento, or even in Congress, but they do know who the president is and to which party he belongs.
Given the president’s political instinct to appeal to his base, (a base that increasingly does not look like California) and not the electorate as a whole, that puts the state GOP in a bind, he said. “If that’s going to be the argument that the party has for the next ten years I don’t know that the Republican party nationally, and certainly not in California, can sustain that.”
Once again shutout from statewide office, some of the California candidates for statewide office said they hope to instead to advance conservative policy in California through ballot measures.
Voters “don’t want anything with an ‘R’ next to its name,” said Konstantinos Roditis, the candidate for controller who had the “R” next to his name. “If we want to make change in California that people want, the best way, I believe is to do it through the initiative process.”
Both he and the candidate for treasurer, Greg Conlon, discussed the possibility of putting a state proposition on the ballot aimed at reducing California’s public sector pension liability as soon as 2020.
“Our positions are not really Republican, they’re really bipartisan because the people want it,” said Roditis. “Democrats in Sacramento don’t want it.”
In the short-term, the California Republican party’s greatest hopes for broader political relevance may lie with the governor-elect. Many Republicans believe that Californians will tire of Democratic rule if and when Newsom begins to push through the many ambitious and expensive policies he’s promised on the campaign trail.
The lesson of the last few elections is that Californians have a modest appetite for certain taxes, said Jack Citrin, a UC Berkeley political scientist who has written about the politics of the California tax revolt. “It doesn’t mean that Californians are ready to embrace all kinds of higher taxes,” he said. “I would bet you that if you put Proposition 13 on the ballot as it applies to homeowners it would pass again easily.”
A recession, and the budget crunch that would likely follow, could result in a similar political backlash. “You can’t sit around and wait for the revolution,” said Whalen. “But I would not get too far down the road with grim prophecies. Things can change quickly in politics.”
Just think back to 1974. In the midterm elections after the Watergate hearings and the resignation of President Richard Nixon, the state Republican Party lost five seats in a once-in-a-generation electoral pummeling. But six years later, Ronald Reagan, another Californian, ran for president and won.
“This Republican Party will be back in this state,” Cox said, “and our path to success is going to be based upon delivering the quality of life that people need so desperately.”