AS THE GOP goes wobbly, red states go purple, then blue. This is the cautionary tale that California offers national Republicans. Texas, it seems, is in the crosshairs next. Republicans need the Lone Star State’s 38 electoral votes to anchor any future presidential victory. Democratic strategists, knowing this, have launched “Battleground Texas,” a multi-million-dollar attempt to make the state competitive again. The effort has drawn attention from the likes of the liberal rag the American Prospect, and the unthinkable prospect of a blue Texas has even burdened a few heads on Capitol Hill. “In not too many years, Texas could switch from being all Republican to all Democrat,” Senator Ted Cruz told the New Yorker last year. “The Republican Party would cease to exist. We would become like the Whig Party.”
Writing at the Spectator online, Reid Smith compared the situation to that of Colorado, a once solidly red state, turned blue after establishment Republicans went flaky:
Think back to 2004. Back then, the Republican Party owned a registration advantage of nearly 200,000 voters. Governor Bill Owens was hailed by the National Review as “The Best Governor in America.” The GOP controlled every level of government. Alan Phillip, former director for the Colorado Republican Party recalls, “We controlled everything but the courts. Nobody seriously thought Colorado was anything but a right-leaning state.”
But then the Colorado GOP split over taxes, with moderate Republicans calling for the elimination of tax relief. The Democrats saw an opportunity and pounced. It was the beginning of the end of the Colorado Republican majority.
California under Arnold Schwarzenegger magnifies this sorry story. Longtime readers of TAS may remember that I received a host of “you are an extremist”-style letters from establishment Republicans for writing in this magazine that a Schwarzenegger governorship would hasten the death of an already tottering California GOP. (See “The Squirminator,” November-December 2002.)
Those supporting Schwarzenegger bought into the superficial. They argued for a candidate with sex appeal instead of one with soul. The condition of the California GOP over a decade later confirms my prediction. The party went from bad to worse under Schwarzenegger. The numbers are beyond bleak:
28 Democrats, 12 Republicans.
55 Democrats, 25 Republicans.
10 Democrats, zero Republicans.
38 Democrats, 15 Republicans.
Two Democrats, zero Republicans.
Republican voter registration in the state hovers around 29 percent, the lowest figure in the party’s 159-year history. Its official party apparatus is comically feeble, with—until recently—staffers, sans offices, toiling away at home while struggling to erase the party’s debt.
Since 2002, the California GOP’s only triumphs statewide were Arnold’s recall election victory and state insurance commissioner Steve Poizner’s win in 2006. Only two of California’s ten largest cities—not terribly big Fresno and Anaheim—have Republican mayors.
“Arnold hijacked everything,” says Jon Fleischmann, publisher of the influential FlashReport.org and a former executive director of the California Republican Party. “Imagine a pirate raiding a ship. That’s what Arnold did to the California GOP.”
Schwarzenegger turned the party into his own personal plaything, loading it up with flunkies and crippling debt in the run-up to his reelection, while undercutting conservative candidates. Mike Spence, then a member of the state GOP’s executive committee, complained to the press in 2008 about a $3 million loan that Arnold forced on the party. “The party shouldn’t have voted for it,” he said. “It got a 20-point victory for him and not a lot for anybody else.”
But even more destructively, Arnold pursued an outrageously liberal agenda, from financing embryo-destroying research to promoting gay marriage to raising taxes to enacting the “Global Warming Solutions” act. This demoralized rank-and-file Republicans while poisoning what little remained of the GOP soul through scandal and endless compromise. “We lost our identity as Republicans,” says Fleischmann. “The party has never recovered.”
Arnold was, to anybody even remotely paying attention in 2003, an obvious Democratic Party Trojan horse, which explained the Democrats’ easy abandonment of then-Governor Gray Davis—to the point that friends of Dianne Feinstein were openly touting Arnold. In 2005, Arnold came clean, sort of, and made a former Gray Davis aide, Susan Kennedy, his chief of staff, a move that came to symbolize the utter stupidity and emptiness of his recall victory. In subsequent books, it has come out that Arnold’s liberal and cuckolded Kennedy wife, Maria Shriver, enjoyed tremendous sway over his administration.
Another downside of having a Kennedy squish as governor, says Fleischmann, is that donors moved their money into national races instead of supporting the Golden State GOP. “They couldn’t see how it would do any good,” he said. “Tens of millions of dollars were being donated out of California.” Chevron, a large and historic support of the party, gave up and began pouring money into the coffers of Democratic candidates, seeing it as protection money in what they now consider to be a permanently blue state.
“We would have been better off without the recall,” said Arnold Steinberg, a veteran California GOP strategist and analyst. “It was a huge opportunity that Arnold blew. It could have been the rebirth of the party. But his administration gave a bad image to the California Republican party. He would go into the room with the Democrats and give away the store. And then we would get the blame.”
According to Shawn Steel, the Republican National Committeeman from California, the problem is not only a paucity of donors—“The era of Henry Salvatori,” he says, in reference to the mega-rich supporter of Reagan, “is over”—but the fact that potential conservative leaders are fleeing the state at an astonishing rate. “Our people are gone,” Steel says. “We are the leading exporter of Republicans to the rest of the country. We are helping Texas.”
The media constantly reports on the “demographic shift” in California—meaning the flood of illegal Mexican immigrants into the state. But the most significant change for California Republicans, the disappearance of middle-class families, goes largely unreported. “We are losing 3,000 families a week,” says Steel. “It is a massive demographic middle-class blowout.”
Steel, too, assigns much of the blame for the GOP’s implosion to Arnold. “Sadly, he turned out to be an amoral pig and not even a good politician.” Asked if the party would be in better shape today had Republicans leaders not allowed Arnold to parachute into the governor’s office after elbowing out the worthier Tom McClintock—a solid conservative who is now a U.S. congressman—Steel answered: “That could have changed things dramatically. We tarnished our brand.”
But Steel traces the beginning of the end to another lousy pol, Dan Lungren, who ran an “inept” gubernatorial campaign against the uncharismatic Gray Davis in 1998. “Lungren’s loss set up reapportionment, which set up Democratic hegemony,” he says. The Los Angeles Times correctly predicted this right before Lungren’s defeat:
The winner of next month’s gubernatorial election will be similarly positioned to boost, or protect, his party’s clout in the next century. If Democrat Gray Davis wins and the Democrats hold onto the Legislature, they can undo the court-drawn legislative and congressional reapportionment plan adopted when Gov. Pete Wilson and Democrats couldn’t agree in 1991. Republicans benefited from that plan because it rewarded GOP-leaning suburban growth areas with additional seats.
On the other hand, if Republican Dan Lungren is victorious, even saddled with a Democratic Legislature, he could forestall a Democratic gerrymander or force the issue back to courts. Republicans will again be looking for ways to reward growing suburbs with more seats, and a court-drawn plan would probably grant that wish.
THESE ARE THE internal causes of the left-drifting California GOP’s collapse. But external ones exist too. Fleischmann points to one of the largest: The public-sector unions have had a stranglehold on Golden State politics for more than a decade, a problem for which Governor-again Jerry Brown laid the groundwork back in the 1970s and that a squishy GOP has only made worse. Awash in tens of millions of dollars to donate to liberal candidates, the unions provide the Democrats with an enormous fundraising advantage. Then there’s the ceaseless stream of money from Silicon Valley fat cats to liberal candidates. And it doesn’t help matters that the biggest donor to the California GOP, the Munger family, is composed of classic moderates.
“I was hoping we would get a new generation of capitalists out of Silicon Valley,” Steel said. “But it is just a place where you build money up quickly. So instead we are getting a whole generation of Silicon Valley oligarchs.”
Meanwhile, the handful of moderate Republicans that the valley yields—failed gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman and failed Senate candidate Carly Fiorina, chief among them—have even less political touch than Arnold. Typical of the party’s gimmicky solutions is that it has set up a “tech office” in the valley, as though this will break the Democrats’ ironclad grip.
California is also home to a huge network of deep-pocketed environmentalists, journalists who act like Democratic operatives, an entertainment industry to the left of European liberals, and a public school system run by Alinskyite radicals. It all adds up to liberalism as far as the eye can see, including a likely Democrat blowout in 2014. (The best-case scenario is that Republicans pick up a handful of seats in the senate, assembly, and House.)
So hapless has the party become that state leaders had Garry South, a Democratic strategist, address a GOP retreat earlier this year. “It’s a pretty depressing presentation if you’re a Republican,” South chortled to the Sacramento Bee. “So I may have a doctor on hand to issue Prozac prescriptions.”
This kind of chummy relationship with the Democrats appeals to the former Senate Republican leader and new chairman of the state GOP, Jim Brulte. Brulte and South are colleagues at California Strategies, a government affairs firm. That doesn’t sit well with at least one prominent GOP consultant who spoke to TAS. Hefinds the Brulte-South “dog and pony show” tiresome and symbolic of an unserious, “crony capitalist” party. “We have a lobbyist as chairman of the party,” he sighs. (Brulte is technically not a registered lobbyist but a “government affairs consultant concentrating on local issues,” according to his spokesman. Given a chance to respond to the criticism above, Brulte declined, citing a busy schedule.)
“Nobody wants to write about this, but his firm is a moneymaking machine and it wants to be able to say to clients, ‘One of our lobbyists is chairman of the Republican party and he can get Republicans on the phone,’” the consultant continues. This undercuts the “populist” appeal of the GOP.
Perhaps the most depressing irony in the dissolution of the California GOP is that the fall came at the very moment the Golden State, reeling from recession and bloated government, needed its policies most. Democrats have turned California into a liberal lab experiment gone horribly wrong. On top of its obvious social maladies, the state relies for its economic direction on a dysfunctional legislature that routinely dips into “special funds” for this or that need, delays lawful payments to state entities, racks up billions in unfunded liabilities for state workers, borrows billions from the federal government for unemployment benefits, and presides complacently over an out-of-control bond mess.
Yet Republicans still haven’t been able to make their case. So much for the appeal of “fiscal conservatism,” the cry of country club Republicans at the time of Arnold’s recall campaign.
“The ghost haunting this past weekend’s California Republican Convention in Sacramento was the steroid-bloated, hulking apparition of ex-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger,” wrote John Seiler of CalWatchDog.com in March. “Just eight years ago, in 2005, Arnold was the toast of the GOP.”
Seiler recounted all of his screw-ups and heresies, recalling that, as laid out in Ian Halperin’s biography, Governator. Arnold empowered his wife and left to frolick in Hollywood. Good Republicans had no real influence at the governor’s mansion. After winning reelection, he proposed socializing the state’s health care. He hiked taxes $13 billion. He rewarded his stooge for the clinching tax-hike vote, state senator Abel Maldonado, with appointment to lieutenant governor.
Memories of these fiascoes put Seiler in mind of a scene from Commando in which Arnold’s character invades a foreign island and kills everyone on it: “After Arnold shoots everybody, an American general comes in for the cleanup, and asks, ‘Leave anything for us?’ Arnold quips, ‘Juszt bodiez.’”
Seiler is right. “Juszt bodiez” defines Arnold’s legacy and could serve as a fitting epitaph on the grave of the California GOP.
National Republicans should pay heed. The temptation to move the GOP’s message to the left in states like Texas will only grow. They better study the California GOP’s autopsy report carefully—or the party they lose next may be their own.