The final vote tallies are in for a handful of tight legislative races. It’s now clear that California Democrats have gained supermajorities in both houses of the Legislature, meaning they can raise taxes without needing to woo any Republican votes.
The state Republican Party has long abandoned hope of ever gaining majorities, but each year it fights to preserve some semblance of power (or dignity) by maintaining a third of the membership in each chamber. The California GOP — which holds no statewide constitutional offices (governor, lieutenant governor, treasurer, etc.) — hasn’t gone the way of Hawaii (only one GOP state senator), but it’s unlikely anything will stop the slide.
The handful of legislative flips in the Nov. 8 election had to hurt. That’s because the losing legislators seemed to epitomize every strategy the state GOP had embraced in recent years. And they all lost in (relatively) Republican-friendly districts. For instance, the final news involves Senate District 29, where Josh Newman, a Democratic activist, beat GOP Assemblywoman Ling Ling Chang by 2,100 votes in a district with a Republican lean and a large Asian population (27 percent).
The district includes fairly conservative edge suburbs of Los Angeles — Diamond Bar in the eastern San Gabriel Valley, Chino Hills in San Bernardino County and some northern Orange County suburbs including Brea and Richard Nixon’s old homestead of Yorba Linda. The district also includes some heavily Latino areas (West Covina, Anaheim), but this is the prototypical district the party has to win if it has any future in the state.
Assemblywoman Young Kim, a Republican who represented the Fullerton area of Orange County, also lost her seat. Her 65th District seat has a slight Democratic lean, but also is heavily Asian. In those central Orange County districts, large Asian voter turnout often benefits the GOP, as do relatively low Latino turnout rates. She was the incumbent and should have been able to hang on.
Republican Eric Linder also lost. He represents some Riverside County suburbs in a district with a 5-point tilt toward the GOP. Linder even amassed a pro-union record. As Laurel Rosenhall reported for CALmatters, “He broke from his party to vote for labor-backed bills requiring more disclosure of health care rates, new layoff protections for civil servants and a system for workers to collect unpaid wages from employers.… He’s the first Republican in more than 20 years to get the endorsement of the Service Employees International Union.”
No one was surprised that Assemblyman David Hadley of Torrance lost his seat. The 66th Assembly District in the Los Angeles South Bay area has an 8-point Democratic advantage. That makes it more Republican than other districts in Los Angeles County, but it’s still tough sledding.
When Hadley was elected in 2014, it was the first time a Republican won that seat in 16 years. “Republicans across California sent a clear message that with the right candidate that matches the district and the right team behind them, Republicans are more than competitive,” GOP consultant Mitch Zak told the Daily Breeze. “And Republican philosophies and ideologies are alive and well in California.”
That has been the GOP talking point for a long time — careful selection of the right candidate will help the party stay in the game. The party has a big “Trailblazers” project for recruiting young, new political leaders, with a focus on recruiting minority candidates and ones that reflect the demographics and political views of their particular district. They’ve even gotten some national press coverage for the approach.
Some Republican leaders are focused on boosting votes from women and the growing Asian population. Kim and Chang fit that strategy. Linder is Latino, and fit the strategy of seeking out members of that community. Others — Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, Orange County Sen. Janet Nguyen, Assemblyman Rocky Chavez of Oceanside — are touted as success stories, but they are go-along-get-along types who lack the courage to stand up for much of anything of value to conservative or libertarian voters.
In my view, Hadley was the toughest loss. He is thoughtful and effective — a principled limited-government guy who was able to work with liberal Democrats to accomplish some meaningful things. That sounds improbable, but his co-authorship of an important bill reforming the state’s abusive asset-forfeiture laws was a key to its passage. Frankly, Hadley fit the model I’ve often touted — offer principled libertarian-oriented candidates who can do a good job explaining our issues to the public. Never mind about that idea.
The bottom line is nothing works. Obviously, Republicans can still win in heavily Republican gerrymandered districts. Even there, the GOP takes the safe route by putting up law-and-order types backed by the police unions (forget about pension reform!) or farmers in rural districts. Those legislators give lots of floor speeches referring to the Constitution, but tend to be mocked or ignored by the Democratic leadership.
In swing districts, the GOP can grab the occasional seat, but can rarely hold on to them for long. Recruiting attractive minority candidates doesn’t work. Having candidates who constantly sell out to the other side doesn’t work. Neither does picking candidates tailor-made for the district. All the outreach programs in the world don’t help.
In 2014, after the GOP had a relatively successful midterm election, then-Assembly minority leader Kristin Olsen dumped some of the Assembly Republicans’ longtime conservative policy staffers and rejiggered the policy office to focus on better communications. The old policy staffers’ bill recommendations (vote “no” on this tax increase) clearly put some weak-kneed members in awkward positions.
“I have spent the last four months talking to a wide variety of stakeholders up and down California,” said Olsen, at the time. “Many expressed great concern that the Assembly GOP Caucus had become a static organization that needs to modernize and be restructured in order to meet the needs of a changing state, economy and technological world. The Caucus shares this view and is enthusiastic about modernizing its operations.”
As the GOP fades into oblivion, the Capitol media has become more focused on the informal Mod Squad — the group of moderate Democrats who have increasing power within their caucus. These are just the fixations of an increasingly bored media in a one-party state. Here’s a typical analysis from KCRA’s Kevin Riggs: “Democrats won’t be able to pass things on a super majority unless all Democrats agree. You’ve got moderate Democrats, pro-business Democrats, who are not going to align themselves with liberal Democrats, who for example want to raise the gasoline tax.”
Sure, there are differences between coastal white liberals and Latino Democrats representing Central Valley farm districts. But the latter almost always go along with the former, although they occasionally resist some tax-hike idea that might make them look bad in their district. Basically, they are all liberals of one variety or another. One leader of the Assembly Mod Squad is as consistent a supporter of big government as one will ever find, a former cop described by the Sacramento Bee as “law enforcement’s man at the Capitol.”
California long ago shifted to the left demographically and economically, and there’s basically nothing the GOP can do to stop it. The state’s party has been particularly mock-worthy, with its goofy strategies, poor candidates and lack of fundraising prowess. But it doesn’t really matter at this point.
“[T]here’s more to California’s demographic evolution than simple ethnicity. Its reputation for social tolerance and upward mobility also made the state a magnet — or a haven — for those of all ethnicities, genders and cultural inclinations seeking new beginnings,” wrote the Bee’s Dan Walters. “Meanwhile, the decline of its industrial economy — exemplified by the collapse of Southern California’s aerospace industry — plus high living expenses hollowed out its middle class. The state now loses more people to other states, Texas particularly, than it gains from domestic migration.”
The latter point is crucial: California’s middle class keeps fleeing. It’s something of a death spiral, from a political perspective. The more people leave, the more Democratic California becomes. And the more people leave. That leaves the path forward for Republicans more hopeless than ever, especially in the new world of Democratic supermajorities. Perhaps the GOP should just close up shop here, given there’s nothing it can do to change things.