Is the California GOP Dead?

David Kersten
David Kersten is an independent political consultant who lives in the Bay Area. Kersten is also an adjunct professor of public budgeting at the University of San Francisco.

In the wake of 2018 election, there was a surge of articles pronouncing the California Republican Party dead, or near dead, as a political force in California politics.

But nearly all of these articles, or the vast majority, were written by individuals who were either Democrats, members of the mainstream media, or GOP officials who want to take the party in a new direction.

As a political consultant, I rarely, if ever, accept the advice or analysis of the political opposition and always challenge their version of the facts which lead them to some preordained conclusion that happens to further their own political ambitions.

In the interests of full disclosure, I am an independent, non-partisan consultant who has done work for both Republican and Democrat candidates and causes in the past. Most recently, I was honored to serve as an advisor, one of many, to John Cox for Governor in 2018.

With that said, I believe it is important to accurately assess the facts regarding the CAGOP as a viable political force in California politics—i.e. past, present and future.

Nobody disputes that there essentially was a “blue wave” here in California that resulted in California Democrats picking up more seats in Congress and the California State Legislature that anyone projected.

Furthermore, California Republicans have lost their ability to veto tax increases in both the Assembly and Senate by falling significantly below the 27 seats in the Assembly and 13 seats in the Senate to deny Democrats the supermajority 2/3 vote needed to approve tax increases.

The key question regarding the 2018 election is why Republicans did so badly in California and what that means for the future of the party in this state?

Many possible explanations have been provided but I believe there is really only one overarching issue here regarding the success or failure of the GOP in California.

The key issue here is not as much about President Trump as it is about the perceived negative stigma that the national Republican brand, national Republican politics and policies, and national party identification places on Republican candidates in California, regardless of their office sought.

California is a hugely Democrat state with roughly 43.5% Democrat registration compared to 24% Republican and 27.5% “no party preference,” according to the California Secretary of State’s 15-day registration figures for the 2018 general election.

The impact of party identification cannot be understated. If you examine polling and previous election results, it is highly unusual for more than 1 in 10 voters to switch party preference to vote for a candidate of another party—in fact usually less than 1 in 20 voters cross party lines to vote for a candidate of another other party!

Furthermore, the vast majority of the “no party preference” voters actually have a preference for a political party and tend to break largely for Democrat candidates.

Thus, to win statewide office a Democrat candidate only needs to get their base Democrats to the polls and not drive away their natural share of “no party preference” voters that normally break for Democrats–virtually assuring them at least 51% of the vote in a head-on-head match up with another Republican or independent candidate.

Voter registration varies in every local jurisdiction of the state, and many so-called “safe Republican” or “Republican-leaning” districts still have higher Republican voter registration, compared with Democrat and “no party preference” registration.

In terms of the “Trump effect,” I largely concur with what the established experts have been saying on this question for quite some time.

At a conference held several years ago co-sponsored by the Independent Voter Project, both Steve Peace and the late Allen Hoffenblum agreed that the primary driver of the decline of the California Republican Party is the connection voters make between national Republican Party and the state party.

Moreover, since the Governor Wilson era in the early 1990s California has increasingly become a strongly Democrat state as more and more California voters view both the national Republican Party and the California Republican Party as out of step with their values and political preferences, and this trend is reflected in their declared state voter registration and party identification.

Put simply, I do not believe there is a simple answer to how the California GOP shakes this “branding issue” and turns back the tide of declining voter state Republican voter registration. But at the same time, I do believe that this trend could be turned around through a combination of emerging political factors both inside and outside California.

Perhaps what is most interesting is what this conclusion means for Republican candidates and potential Republican candidates in California.

It does not mean that the California Democrat Party somehow has the “moral high ground,” stronger candidates, or a better policy agenda. It only means that Republican candidates in California have a difficult, perhaps impossible, time separating themselves from the national Republican brand and the highly charged national political debate that unfolds on a daily basis in this country.

With the California Republican Party set to convene this coming weekend to choose a new party leader, these issues and others are front and center of the political debate, along with the question of what leader or types of leaders would best lead the party back to prominence in California politics.

While the 2018 election results remain a matter of dispute, it is not disputed that the California Republican Party remains the only substantial organized opposition to the California Democrat Party and its political agenda in this state.

As of last count in 2018, the California Secretary of State reports that there are roughly 4.7 million voters registered as Republican in California.

California Republican voters may not be the political majority in this state, or close to it, but that their sheer numbers and organizing potential still make them a potent political force to be reckoned with, regardless what the recent trends have been.

As history has proven, previous success or lack of it does not accurately predict what the future may bring—just look up somebody by the name of AOC.

The future of the CAGOP has yet to be written, along with what the future holds for the California Democrat Party and the strong legislative majorities that it currently enjoys.

The CAGOP may be down, but as noted in the registration numbers above, there are at least 4.7 million reasons why it’s not dead.

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