California was once a strong Republican state. The party’s greatest modern-day President, Ronald Reagan, was Governor of the state from 68-76. Republicans controlled the legislature and won the state’s electoral votes from 68-88. Since that time the GOP has not won a Senate seat since 1990, ousted an incumbent Democratic Senator since 76 and won the state’s numerous electoral votes since 88.
Republicans have had numerous successful national elections since 1990 but they have all crested in California. In 1994, Republicans retook the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. In 2002, Republicans took control of the US Senate and gained unified control of government. In 2010, Republicans dominated the midterms but failed to gain a single Congressional seat in the state as well as losing the race for Barbara Boxer’s Senate seat and the open Governor’s position (now occupied by former/current Governor Jerry Brown).
Republicans were extremely optimistic about 2010. They had found two strong, successful, female business leaders to run for Senate, Caly Fiorina, and Governor, Meg Whitman. Both were moderate on social issues and focused exclusively on the economy. In the end, Fiorina lost by 10 points and Whitman by over 13 points. Worse, in 2012 the state GOP officially became irrelevant as they lost several legislative seats giving Democrats a 2/3rds majority in the legislature. Democrats no longer needed Republican votes to help pass state budgets or controversial legislation.
Things cannot get much worse for Republicans in the state. Perhaps that is why the party elected Jim Brulte, former leader of the Republicans in the California state senate, state chair in 2013. Brulte hopes to lead the party towards a breakthrough in 2018 (winning a Senate or Governor’s race). This will not be an easy task. In 1990, Republicans were 39% of registered voters in the state. Today, that number has shrunk to 29% with many middle class families, likely Republicans, having left the state.
The reasons for the why the GOP lost California are numerous but at its core it is fairly simple. The state changed. The party did not. As the demographics of the state shifted and urban and suburban centers full of moderate voters expanded their electoral power the GOP continued to focus only on rural, largely white voters. The explosive growth of Hispanics and Asians also was ignored. The demographics of the state are daunting for the party. The state is 39% Hispanics, 38% white, 13% Asian and 6% black. The Democratic coalition is massive and consists of the rich, the poor, suburban and urban, young and old and moderates and liberals.
There are signs of hope for the GOP this cycle. In Congressional elections, Republicans have an openly gay candidate, Carl Demaio, having a real shot to win a toss-up swing district based around San Diego. In the state senate, three Democrats have either resigned or suspended their legislative activity due to corruption charges. Republicans are optimistic they can win the two seats in the senate to end the Democrats 2/3rds majority in the chamber. Republicans are also diversifying their crop of candidates up and down the ballot. The party’s gubernatorial nominee, Neel Kashkari, is an Indian-American. He beat off state assemblyman Tim Donnnelly who ran on a strong, nativist campaign. In Orange County, Republicans are fielding a crop of candidates that feature four Asian women.
Asians appear to yield a strong boon to the GOP if the party pays attention to their needs. The Asian share of the electorate is the fastest growing share of the electorate, increasing 2% in every election cycle. While Asians might prefer a more activist government they also have shown a proclivity to take conservative positions. For example, in early 2104 legislative Democrats attempted to resurrect Affirmative Action, banned in the state in 1996 by a public referendum. The law easily passed the Assembly but once it reached the state senate Democratic, Asian lawmakers assured it never saw the light of day. Asians have a reason to oppose Affirmative Action. They make up a whopping 38% of the UC system’s population despite being only 13% of the 2012 electorate.
Republicans also are grooming a strong crop of candidates to run statewide. The new mayor of San Diego, Kevin Faulconer, offers the party promise. He won a special election to replace scandal plagued Mayor Bob Filner. Faulconer won almost 80% of the white vote, 60% of the Asian vote and almost half the Hispanic vote in route to his victory. Demaio, assuming he wins this cycle, and another Congressional candidate, Jeff Gorell, also could run statewide someday. Fresno mayor Ashley Swearengin has raised the highest hopes. She was elected in the tough GOP year of 2008 and elected with 75% in another challenging GOP year in 2012. Now she is running for state controller and widely regarded as the best hope for the party to win a statewide contest.
Republicans should not ignore the Hispanic vote. The problem for the party is that many Hispanics favor Affirmative Action and activist government. This means the GOP has to find another way to appeal to this massive bloc of voters. A simple outreach effort would be a good start. Perhaps one that models Faulconer’s approach in San Diego where he ran both English and Spanish radio ads and discussed issues important to the city’s Hispanic community.
Perhaps the GOP can appeal to Hispanics on a more superficial level to just start the conversation. Hugh Hewitt, a radio talk show host, says 10 years from now, every Republican running statewide had better speak Spanish. If they don’t, they’ll lose. That’s an experience many Republicans are familiar with.