Despite California’s growing number of failures and crises — ranging from homelessness to housing affordability to crime to poverty — voters are about to grant Gov. Gavin Newsom another four-year term. And, as news reports put it, he’s about to win in a “cakewalk” after the best-known potential Republican challengers have decided to take a pass as the June 7 primary approaches.
Who can blame them?
Then there’s Newsom’s insurmountable $25 million war chest, lest anyone think that one of the longshot candidates (San Francisco author Michael Shellenberger or little-known GOP Sen. Brian Dahle from the rural north) can get traction if the economy gets bad enough by November. The California GOP sowed the seeds of the coming debacle months ago.
Enough already with quick fixes and gimmicks. The GOP needs to offer substantive proposals that deal with the state’s endless list of problems — and recruit candidates with a realistic shot of winning.
“Newsom discouraged competition with a strong showing in last year’s recall,” the Associated Press concluded. “After appearing imperiled during the depths of the pandemic, he rebounded and defeated by a landslide margin the attempt to push him out.” In other words, the GOP already tried to remove Newsom, lost bigly and left the governor in a stronger position than ever.
Even if any of those relatively big names would have put their hat in the ring, they almost certainly would have lost the general election by 20 percentage points given that none of them had any obvious appeal outside the GOP’s falling ranks. Only 24 percent of the state’s registered voters are Republicans, which edges out “no party preference.” Meanwhile, nearly 47 percent of registered voters are Democrats.
It’s a hopeless short-term situation for the state’s club-footed GOP — and one that goes beyond simple math. The party continues to trade in 1980s-era political messaging (law and order!) that appeals to a declining percentage of older, white suburban voters as it seeks a shortcut back into relevancy. With each clumsy move, Republicans convince themselves that they’ve figured it out this time.
Many analysts warned Republicans that their attempt to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom in September would backfire. But the party was sure that a low-turnout special election offered better opportunities than a general election when the lopsided Democratic electorate would turn out in droves. They dutifully gathered signatures and argued that talk-show host Larry Elder was the ticket to a historic win.
Elder is a good guy who had the opportunity to take a limited-government message and then repackage it for mainstream audiences who were fed up with the direction of the state. That’s what Arnold Schwarzenegger did in 2003, with his “blow up the boxes” campaign. Schwarzenegger won and failed to deliver — but his campaign’s nonpartisan nature really resonated with average voters, including large numbers of Democrats.
In the Newsom recall, Elder and Republicans campaigned as if it were a GOP primary, which is asinine when one considers that fewer than one-in-four voters are Republicans. In fact, it was child’s play for the Democrats to portray this as a partisan race — and, lo and behold, the “yes” vote was almost identical to the 38 percent that Republican gubernatorial candidates get every four years.
Consider the official recall “statement of reasons”: “Governor Newsom has implemented laws, which are detrimental to the citizens of this state and our way of life. Laws he endorsed favor foreign nationals, in our country illegally, over that of our own citizens.” There was more, but this is California and such language is a nonstarter. Far better had the recall supporters focused on the state’s myriad problems and presented it in a nonpartisan way.
Maybe something like this: Our big cities are falling into disorder as a crime wave and homelessness epidemic turn public spaces into war zones. Taxes are soaring. Your neighbors are fleeing for Utah and Texas. Your kids will never be able to afford a home. Crazy regulations are crushing our state’s entrepreneurs. We’re running out of water, yet the governor refuses to build more storage.
“Republicans should finally do the math and acknowledge they’re outnumbered 2 to 1 by Democratic voters in California,” noted the Los Angeles Times’ fair-minded columnist George Skelton, shortly after the loss. “They can’t win a statewide office without attracting Democrats and independents.… They’re content to merely sound off and squawk about a deteriorating California without jockeying into position to actually do something.”
Isn’t that the truth? Even if Elder had somehow become governor, how much could he have accomplished in a year with an overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature? Enough already with quick fixes and gimmicks. The GOP needs to offer substantive proposals that deal with the state’s endless list of problems — and recruit candidates with a realistic shot of winning. It’s a long process that’s less enticing than throwing another Hail Mary.
The good news is at least we won’t have to watch perennial GOP candidate John Cox campaign with a 1,000-pound bear any more.
Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.