In summary

As Republican Party popularity plummets in California, two moderate legislators —Chad Mayes and Tyler Diep — take opposite tacks to try to keep their jobs. Politicos will be watching.

Chad Mayes is embarking on a political experiment.

On Thursday, the former Republican leader in the state Assembly finally pulled the plug on what had long been a fraught relationship with the California GOP. Next year he’ll run for re-election in his Yucca Valley-area district as an independent, no doubt taking flak from both a Democrat and a member of his former party.

Running without the imprimateur or financial backing of one of the state’s major political parties’ has never been a winning strategy in California. Several candidates who’ve attempted it statewide have crashed, including most recently former Republican Steve Poizner in his independent 2018 bid for state insurance commissioner. He told CalMatters: “I really do want to be a pioneer for this because if I’m successful I’m hoping lots of people will run as an independent” — right before he lost.

Legislative districts, however, may offer better prospects for independents than a statewide contest. And in a state where “no party preference” voters now outnumber registered Republicans, where GOP political power in both chambers of the Legislature and the congressional delegation sits at a generational nadir, and where the California unpopularity of President Donald Trump has helped flip some of the GOP’s longest-held bastions of support into the Democratic camp, it’s not clear that running with an “R” next to your name is such a great idea either.

“A major political party, even one as weakened as the California Republicans, still gives a candidate structural advantages,” said Dan Schnur, a professor at UC Berkeley and the University of Southern California who ran unsuccessfully for secretary of state as a political independent in 2014. “The question that Mayes is testing is whether the party is so damaged that the downside of associating with it outweighs those structural benefits.”

The California Republican Party, he added, has “a Three Mile Island, long-term toxicity that is going to exist even after Trump leaves the political landscape.”

Hence, Mayes’ experiment. At issue: Can a center-right Trump skeptic alienated from the GOP still find a way to elected office in California? And if he can — and other candidates and large donors catch on — what will that mean for the future of the state’s second largest party?

“I’ve never seen it before,” said Mayes. “We’ll find out.”

In his Assembly district, which winds from east Riverside County up into the high desert, once-dominant Republicans have now seen Democratic registration pull even with them.

As the second state GOP legislator to abandon the party this year (San Diego Assemblyman Brian Maienschein became a Democrat in January), Mayes announced his decision a day before the 2020 candidate filing deadline, leading Riverside County GOP chairman Jonathan Ingram to accuse him of “waiting ’til the 10th hour,” forcing Republicans to scramble to enlist a party-loyal challenger.

Republican Andrew Kotyuk, who ran against Mayes last year but didn’t make it past the primary, jumped in just in time to qualify for 2020.

Mayes insists his decision wasn’t an electoral strategy, but born of frustration with the hyperpartisanship which he says defines policymaking on both sides. “You have Republicans defending the indefensible and you have Democrats also defending the indefensible, and it’s as if the truth doesn’t matter — the truth is defined by your team,” he said.

But he’s particularly frustrated with the activist wing of his former party.

“You have to be with them 100 percent of the time or they won’t have you,” said Mayes, who lost his leadership position in 2017 after helping Democrats reauthorize the state’s cap-and-trade system to combat climate change. “That’s been part of the problem with the Republican Party for a long time: They exclude people.”

“We feel confident in the future of our party, and are doing all that we can to ensure that each and every Republican feels welcome and supported within our party,” said California Republican Party chair Jessica Patterson in a prepared statement. “Unfortunately, there have been some headline-grabbing moves made this week that are shortsighted and politics at its worst.”

Mayes offered some late breaking political drama out of coastal Orange County as a well-time illustration of his point.

On Friday, Janet Nguyen, a former state senator, announced she would challenge fellow Republican Tyler Diep for his Assembly district in Orange County’s Little Saigon.

Nguyen’s campaign said she was motivated in part by an email to activists last week from former Orange County GOP chair Scott Baugh. In it he assailed Diep, among the most moderate Republicans in Sacramento, for “cowardice” and “abandonment of principle.”

“We don’t have a Republican in that seat and we should fight to put one there,” Baugh wrote, calling upon a conservative to “rise to the occasion.” The next day Nguyen took up the charge.

For Mayes, the challenge against Diep represents exactly the kind of ideological litmus test that drove him from the party. Baugh insists his dispute with Diep is about more than a policy disagreement. 

“We’re not upset because he’s a moderate,” he said.  “Chad Mayes has miles of integrity. He’s honest about what he believes. Tyler is not.”

Republican Assemblymember Tyler Diep of Westminster on the floor of the Assembly chambers. Photo by Max Whittaker for CalMatters
Republican Assemblymember Tyler Diep of Westminster on the floor of the Assembly chambers. Photo by Max Whittaker for CalMatters

Baugh was particularly irritated by Diep’s decision to speak at a public hearing last week in favor of a hiring agreement between the city of Anaheim and the regional builders’ union.

“For far too long,” the Republican Party has “tried to demonize the working people,” Diep told the council. He also noted that he was departing from the statement his staff prepared for him. 

Baugh also recalled a conversation he allegedly had with “knowledgeable Democrats” in Sacramento who told him that Diep has plans to defect from the Republican Party “after the election.” Baugh declined to disclose who those Democrats were.

Diep responded to a request for comment by text message. 

“I am committed to the party and vote with my colleagues in the assembly on the majority of issues — that is why I have been endorsed by the Republican Party of Orange County and the CAGOP,” he texted CalMatters. “The GOP candidate who a few activists recruited to challenge me has an established liberal record — indicating this is more about personalities than it is principles. Republicans would be far better served by spending our time and resources taking on Democrats, not trying to defeat our own.”

This isn’t the first time Diep has angered the party’s conservative base. Earlier this year, he was the lone Republican to vote in favor of a bill making it harder for companies to designate gig workers as independent contractors. Diep has also been a vocal critic of President Trump’s immigration policy. 

“This doesn’t have anything to do with the president,” said Dave Gilliard, a consultant for Nguyen. “This is really about local politics.”

So with the Republican Party struggling in California, two of its incumbents offer what Schnur characterized as “different options for dealing with the same challenge.” Do you stay within the party and try to carve out some space in the political center or do you run on your own?

“They’re both inherently flawed options, but we’ll have a much better sense a few months from now whether one is a better path to take for Republicans who are uncomfortable with the party’s trajectory,” Schnur said. 

Bill Wong, the political consultant for Assembly Democrats, predicts good fortune for his own party either way.

In Diep’s Little Saigon district, the California Democratic Party has endorsed Diedre Thu-Ha Nguyen, a Garden Grove councilmember. A factional fight between Diep and Janet Nguyen means Democrats won’t have to spend resources attacking Diep in the lead-up to the March 3 primary.

“Janet will handle that part of it for us,” said Wong. 

Wong also offered an optimistic take on Mayes’ race too, where Democrats are backing DeniAntoinette Mazingo, a lawyer who unsuccessfully challenged Mayes in 2018. 

“I respect Chad Mayes for the decision,” said Wong. But because party loyalists are more likely to turn out to vote in primaries than independents, he said, “he might be the one left out” of California’s top-two election against Mazingo and the Republican Kotyuk.

Mayes said it’s worth the risk. 

“I’m not in a place in my life any longer that I’m thinking about running for re-election because some day I want to be a member of Congress,” he said. “It will be interesting to see how this plays out. But I don’t fear it.” 

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Ben covers housing policy and previously covered California politics and elections. Prior to these roles at CalMatters, he was a contributing writer for CalMatters reporting on the state's economy and...