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Will the National GOP Go the Way of the California GOP?

Six years of lying and conspiracy theories are threatening the Republican suburban-rural electoral coalition across the country.
May 19, 2022
Will the National GOP Go the Way of the California GOP?
(Bulwark Composite / Shutterstock)

The political outlook for Democrats nationally is grim. Election forecasters are united in the view that the Biden doldrums, 8.3 percent inflation, and a sour public mood are leading to a historic wave that will install Kevin McCarthy as speaker of the House and reinstall Mitch McConnell as Senate majority leader.

Just a tiny problem, though. The Republican party, cracked all the way through by its devotion to Donald Trump’s 2020 election defeat mythology, shows signs it is bent on alienating itself from the political center of the country. At the congressional level, this won’t matter all that much since both parties have so artfully and completely gerrymandered the map that we have basically back-doored proportional representation in the House. The party that wins the most votes nationally is likely to win the House majority for the next ten years. Senate seats and state governorships, accountable to more diverse electorates where the Republican unreality is more dilute, are another matter. It is in these statewide races that we can begin to see how the GOP in the swing states is tracing the party’s trajectory in the state that still teaches us everything about the future: California.

Last summer, I was asked by Law & Liberty to respond to an essay by Michael Barone about California’s unraveling society, economy, and politics. Barone’s piece walked a well-marked trail of conservative commentary about California. The economic and social arteries of a state that was once a global champion for individual freedom and the miracles of modern capitalism have grown hard and sluggish due to an uninterrupted diet of political and cultural progressivism. So far, sad but entirely true.

Where I differed with Barone was on the question of whether California still influenced national trends or not. He thinks it doesn’t; I think it’s a question of what kind of influence California exerts on national life and politics. And, on this question, the decline of conservative politics in the Golden State is very much the model for the decline of Republican politics nationally. The parallels are almost too on the nose in some cases. Herewith is the political tragedy of California Republicanism and what it may portend for the future, in four acts.

Act One: The Trump before Trump.

In 1994, then-Governor Pete Wilson, seeking re-election, tied his fortunes to Proposition 187, an amendment to the state constitution prohibiting undocumented immigrants from accessing most public programs, including education and health care. By excluding the undocumented from public services, the argument went, the state was conserving public resources for citizens and otherwise demagnetizing California as a destination for dangerous and violent illegal immigrants. Prop 187 passed by a wide margin and was interpreted as a vindication of Wilson’s political strategy of “juicing” public resentment about undocumented immigrants, especially among conservative white voters, through racialized appeals. Subsequent constitutional amendments banning affirmative action and limiting bilingual education were also successful.

Act Two: The years the locusts ate. And ate.

What happened to the Republican party in California after 1994 is a complicated story. Like every huge defeat, its sources were multiple—and were perhaps driven chiefly by the realization that California’s amazing mid-century growth couldn’t be sustained and would eventually lead to (relatively) leaner times. That reality strengthened the Democrats, who promised the most in government benefits.

Under these more straitened circumstances, Democrats had dominated in the California legislature since the 1970s, so no surprise that in the post-Prop 187 years, Republicans had a majority in the State Assembly for just 1 year and in the State Senate for 0 years.

Via Ballotpedia

Yet it is also true that Prop 187 and its progeny were a key inflection point in the decline of the California GOP. The measures had been popular, even among Latino voters, but the dominance of anti-immigration sentiment proved to be short-lived. Second thoughts began to set in and, eventually, Republican association with these measures became equated in the public mind with a racism and social exclusion that increasingly progressive-minded Californians didn’t want to be associated with, creating a chasm between the GOP and the electorate.

In the 28 years that have elapsed since Prop 187 passed, Republicans have held the governorship for 11 (the end of Pete Wilson’s tenure plus Arnold Schwarzenegger’s one-and-a-half terms). Although Republicans had in the preceding decades often held one or both of the state’s two seats in the U.S. Senate, there have been no Republican senators since the fight over Prop 187. (In fact, Wilson himself was the last California Republican in the Senate.)

What’s truly striking, however, is the depths to which the California GOP fell in the state legislature. GOP representation in both chambers has dropped by half. Republican seats in the Assembly fell from 41 in 1994 to 19 today; the Senate GOP dropped from 17 to 9.

There are still pockets of the state where the GOP is strong. But in most heavily populated urban and suburban areas, Republicans have become a pariah party, settling for semi-permanent minority status in a state over which liberal Democrats now have basically unchallenged hegemony.

Act Three: Tragedy as farce.

Donald Trump’s candidacy, election, and presidency set off a reenactment of the slow-motion California GOP debacle at the national level. Perhaps without fully realizing what they were doing, Republican primary voters went full-Wilson (Pete, not Woodrow). Trump began his campaign with an extended attack on undocumented immigrants from Latin America and strident calls for trade protectionism. It was xenophobia and declinist fear all the way down.

And it worked. Like Wilson, Trump was able to tap into race- and anti-immigrant-infused anger and resentment, provoking an enormous turnout among white voters who had either supported Barack Obama or just not voted at all in previous elections. Following his narrow Electoral College victory, his presidency basically played out the themes of his campaign (at least until what he called the “China virus” came along), combined with a tendency to promote almost any conspiracy theory he could bend toward his personal benefit.

The mesmerizing, can’t-look-away-from-the-car-crash Trump Show and expressions of horror from Democrats and mainstream media rapidly converted holdouts in the Republican base and the formerly Trump-resistant GOP establishment into supporters. Trump’s extremes in office, in terms of policy and of his unpresidential demeanor, also proved poisonous with the suburban moderates (like the ones who abandoned the California GOP 15 years earlier) whose votes ejected him from office in 2020 despite a huge increase in GOP turnout.

Act Four: The bill comes due.

The Trump presidency may have been a failure but Trumpism has proven to have real and enduring appeal. GOP elected officials, whatever their private doubts, have overwhelmingly acquiesced and become complicit in Trump’s 2020 election fabrications and toed the line on anti-immigration policy out of fear of facing a primary opponent endorsed by the former president.

As the 2022 field of candidates comes into focus, the cost of allowing Trump’s election lies to fester is becoming clearer. In state after state and race after race, Republican primary voters are opting not just for Trump-endorsed candidates but the Trumpiest candidates, the ones most closely tied to Trump’s big lie of 2020 voter fraud, whether they have Trump’s endorsement or not. The dynamics of specific primaries can complicate the results—sometimes the Trump-supported candidate is too personally flawed to win, as (barely) happened with Madison Cawthorn this week; and sometimes two MAGA candidates will split the vote, as seems to have happened in Pennsylvania’s Senate race—but in general, Trump’s unprecedented control of the GOP is clear. Non-Trump candidates are nonstarters.

The Pennsylvania governor’s race is a particularly clear example of this. State Senator Doug Mastriano, who won the GOP nomination for governor this week, has been up to his neck in the effort to subvert the 2020 election since the beginning. He helped Rudy Giuliani organize the infamous Gettysburg “voter fraud hearing” and arranged buses to carry Pennsylvanians to Trump’s January 6th speech that led to the attack on the Capitol. After he claimed that he had departed before violence started he and his wife later turned up on video walking through police barricades during the riot. Mastriano is known for his frequent sharing of QAnon-related materials via Twitter and for speaking at a recent QAnon-heavy conference in Pennsylvania. And now he’s the GOP nominee—and if elected governor, he will be in charge of appointing the secretary of the commonwealth, Pennsylvania’s top election official, in time to oversee what’s likely to be a tight race for president in 2024.

It isn’t just Pennsylvania where this political psychodrama is playing out in plain view of suburban swing voters who tend to react viscerally to Trumpian politics. Herschel Walker, the Russian roulette-playing, former University of Georgia football star and likely GOP nominee to run against incumbent Raphael Warnock, has been on a tear promoting election fraud theories. His candidacy risks a rerun of the urban-suburban pincer that cost the GOP Georgia’s two Senate seats in 2020. The Michigan GOP has almost completed the effort to replace local party election oversight officials with election big-liars, raising the specter of MAGA fabulists overruling unfavorable election results this year and in 2024. Former Fox 10 Phoenix reporter Kari Lake is a strong contender for the Arizona Republican nomination for governor despite Lake’s serial prevarications about voter fraud in Arizona and around the country. She even took out time to declare that California Governor Gavin Newsom’s recall victory was “impossible” apart from fraud.

The pattern in Pennsylvania and elsewhere is clear: The GOP frontrunners or near-frontrunners are in almost every case not just Trump-endorsed, or Trump-affiliated candidates; they are Trump-consumed candidates with bellies full of that hot, hot MAGA fire. As Steve Bannon recently noted, referring to the Pennsylvania races, the contest isn’t between old-line Republicans and MAGA candidates, “it’s MAGA vs. ultra-MAGA.” Rationality and coherence has been stretched to the breaking point and beyond as these true-believers race to appeal to an intellectually and spiritually decadent primary audience that, when it comes to Trumpism, has an insatiable need for more.

California, here we come.

Which brings us back to the previously mentioned consequences of political madness. In California, where the radicalization of the GOP has had the longest time to work its way into hearts and minds, the Republican party has reduced itself to rump status. Once solidly conservative congressional and state legislative districts in suburban communities along the Pacific Coast have (mostly) adopted various shades of blue while Republicans have largely receded to the inland districts in the Central Valley and other more rural areas of the state. One way to fix this problem would be to allow some ideological diversity and variation among Republican candidates to tailor messages that appeal to more moderate voters but this would result in a tissue reject among GOP primary voters.

The result is a Democratic stranglehold on state government that empowers progressives to define the terms of policy debates and set the parameters of what’s desirable and achievable, following every wind of progressive doctrine and only occasionally being overruled by citizen ballot initiatives. At the statewide level, only the most dire circumstances (think Gray Davis’s budget and electrical grid meltdowns) are enough to give the GOP a shot at the governorship, and then apparently only if they select an action-hero movie idol like Arnold Schwarzenegger who can figure out a way to combine populist star power with policy moderation. The absence of an effective Republican opposition in the state, which is mostly derivative of GOP radicalization, has made conservative policy nightmares come true. Meanwhile, the people of California are stuck with an increasingly distant, dismissive, and dysfunctional state government that seems unable to deal with pressing challenges like energy, water, housing, and homelessness and uninterested in restraining its own growth.

This downward spiral of political weakness and policy landslides should (but won’t) serve as a cautionary tale for a party that “lives in terror of its voters.” Unless Republicans find the nerve to call a halt, they risk seeing their party’s long-term political prospects devoured by xenophobia and conspiracism. That is a not-insignificant problem—for everyone. Robust parties are an extraconstitutional check that keeps policymaking within the 40-yard lines as “ambition . . . [is] made to counteract ambition.” The absence of such a contest played a large part in creating today’s California. The ongoing “metropolitanization” of American society, combined with the GOP’s flight from reality, threatens to Californianize national politics by reducing Republican politics to a series of irritable mental gestures and Twitterized braying that lacks an audience beyond a shrinking, but highly motivated, minority of voters.

As I noted in my reply to Barone last year, I was once asked by a colleague during the debate over the Obama stimulus bill (remember when $900 billion seemed like a lot of money?) whether I was afraid America was becoming France. “No,” I replied, “but I am worried we’re becoming California.” I still am.

Brent Orrell

Brent Orrell is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute where he researches workforce development and criminal justice issues.