Can the CAGOP stage a political comeback?

David Kersten
David Kersten is president of the Kersten Institute for Governance and Public Policy (www.kersteninstitute.org). Kersten is also an adjunct professor of public finance and economics at the University of San Francisco.

One key issue that often comes up in the mainstream media, as well as California political circles, is whether or not the California Republican Party (CAGOP) can begin to rise again, as opposed to continuing to decline in political relevance and legislative power.  

As a matter of full disclosure, I am currently registered as a “decline to state” voter or so-called “independent voter,” but I believe most California voters’ would actually like to see the results produced by a healthier two-party system in California.  

After all, if the California Democratic Party has no political competition and very little real threats to its political power, then it can pretty much do whatever it wants without any real accountability, and that is pretty much the place that California politics has been in for a while.

On its face, in the course of modern California political history the CAGOP appears to be at a low-water mark and continuing to decline in political relevance and power.  

The party recently chose a new chairperson, Jessica Patterson, who is still settling in to the position and it is unclear at this point if and when there will be any make break from how the party has been run in the past.  

I am not privy to any of the internal workings of the party, its leadership and plans for the future, but a few suggestions come to mind that I believe would be critical to once again making the party a viable political force in California politics. 

In politics, generally the most significant political power is not often seen or heard but rather wielded behind the scenes in the halls of power (i.e. Sacramento and the California State Capitol).  

There is no need for significant public displays of power or brinksmanship because those who have the power know it, and so does everyone else connected to the Sacramento political scene.  

This is the type of power that the California Democrat Party and all its representatives and key political stakeholders hold in California politics.

The California Republican Party and its representatives in the California State Senate and California State Assembly, on the other hand, is a super-minority and essentially has little or no real political power to alter the course of the Democratic policy agenda and the exercise of the party’s political power.

We see this power every day at the California State Capitol, in what bills move through the process, what bills clear committee, what bills are signed into law, as well as what the party’s political priorities are in the California State Budget and other state agencies.  

In political terms, we would say that the current California Republican Party and its members almost completely lack political leverage, which is critical to obtaining and exercising political power in all political systems, particularly in a democracy.     

So the critical question here is how can the California Republican Party gain political leverage when it does not appear to have any?  And this is the conundrum the party has been mired in for many years.  

I believe the only real path forward is to develop, stage and execute a formidable political campaign to rebuild the party, connect with voters, and challenge the California Democrat political machine head on in the media, at the grassroots level, and in the halls of power.    

In 2017-18, I worked on the John Cox for Governor Campaign as a public policy consultant.  

In watching that campaign unfold, I believe the two Republican candidates John Cox and Travis Allen did a great job connecting with voters, challenging the record of California Democrats, getting their message out, and revitalizing the California Republican Party.

Similarly, you may not agree with Donald J. Trump and his policies, many California voters do not, but as a political consultant, one must agree that he is an excellent campaigner, public speaker, and political competitor.  

President Trump often highlights the shortcomings of the California Democrat leadership such as homelessness, sanctuary cities, and over taxation and over regulation.  Anything Trump says about California immediately gets picked up by the national and state media and debated everywhere for several news cycles, until he makes another set of comments.  

It is doubtful that President Trump will convince many California Democrats to vote Republican, but he does do an excellent job at waging an impactful political and public relations campaign on specific policy issues.  

This puts California Democrats on the defensive, and sparks a public debate on the issues raised, which is not always favorable to Democrats, particularly on issues such as homelessness, crime and over taxation.   

As a 20 year plus veteran of political campaigns and political messaging, I know what works and what does not.  I know what it takes for a political campaign to be successful and what happens when campaigns do the things they need to do to be successful.  They get results, often times far beyond initial expectations.

All of the above cases are all clear examples of politicians crafting an effective message and then running a political campaign to get their message out and mobilize voters and supporters towards a desired result.    

So why can’t the California Republican Party and its supporters mount a similar effort in California to rebuild the CAGOP?  Seems like an honest question.

For whatever reason, this has not been done and I do not see it currently being done, at least to an extent needed to be successful.   

I am not talking about maintaining a social media account and sending out press releases periodically, I am talking about a full-scale political campaign that communicates with the hearts and minds of California voters to spark real political action. 

First off, the CAGOP needs the political leadership to get it done and thus far it does not appear that any new such leadership has stepped forward.  

One of those potential leaders, former gubernatorial candidate Travis Allen, who ran a hugely successful grassroots organizing effort in the 2018 California gubernatorial primary, recently got voted down by the California Republican Party to be party chair, and has not reappeared in the public eye much.  

John Cox, on the other hand, is now organizing independent voters through a new project called “Change.org.”  

While Cox and Allen rarely agreed on much, except for their opposition to left-wing policies, I believe they would agree that they are two of the most influential political leaders that the party has had in recent history.  

Yet at the same time, both figures no longer appear to be playing a prominent public role in the party, despite this being a clear strength of both GOP leaders.  

Maybe Cox and/or Allen are working behind the scenes to rebuild the California Party based on what they learned in their 2018 campaigns, but I have a hunch that this is not likely the case.  

If not Cox or Allen, the CAGOP desperately needs new political leaders to step forward to communicate with voters in a fashion similar to what proved successful in the 2018 California gubernatorial election.

Critics may charge that both Cox and Allen lost, but anyone who paid attention to that 2018 campaign for Governor knows that they both did significant damage to the Democrat’s “progressive policy agenda” that has now come under increasingly close scrutiny and criticism.  

The CAGOP will not regain its political power in one fell swoop, but needs to be rebuilt from the ground up as a viable political force in California politics, and that starts with crafting and utilizing a powerful message to reconnect with California voters.  

The liberal mainstream media and California Democrat politicians often portray the “progressive policy agenda” as beyond reproach, but I believe this may appear to be the case because so few people and organizations with the resources and knowledge of its shortcomings actually challenge it, particularly here in California.  

President Trump has proven that taking on the “liberal establishment” (his words) is not easy and may not be pretty, but the President has provided some clear insight on how to do it, what the reaction will be, and how to be successful. 

 In closing, I believe the California Republican Party remains the biggest untapped political power in California politics and it is only a question of who has the inclination and the resourcefulness to find a way to wake this “sleeping giant” and the four million voters who are currently registered “Republican” in California.  

Hopefully one day this “sleeping giant” that is the California Republican Party will one day wake up, realize all the political power at its disposal and begin wielding this power for the good of this state and all its citizens.  

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