Death of the California Republican Party: Murder or Suicide?

Tony Quinn
Editor, California Target Book

The California Republican Party is dead. Call the undertaker, haul away the corpse.

But was it murder, or was it suicide? Mostly a combination, a result both of demographic changes and the stupidity of Republican leaders.

The modern GOP began with the election of Ronald Reagan as governor in1966. He built a coalition of fiscally conservative suburban voters and “Reagan Democrats,” alienated from their historic party. Republicans carried California for six straight presidential elections using that formula (1968, 1972, 1976, 1980, 1984 and 1988)

But with the end of the Cold War, defense related jobs disappeared, and were replaced by the high technology information age. The new high tech voters were turned off by a less tolerant GOP conservatism, and over the past 20 years Republicans have suffered a long decline in the suburbs. The 2008 election marked the end of the GOP with most high wealth suburban voters.

Information age techies make their money on their brains, not their brawn. But the GOP appeal has been to downscale voters, not upscale. Where is the Reagan argument that what California should be about is promoting economic growth, using our tax system to reward entrepreneurial enterprise, building our infrastructure – arguments that would appeal to high tech voters? Nowhere to be found. Republicans just talk about their opposition to tax increases, a negative message that lacks any vision for a better California. And how do information age voters respond; Republicans have been trashed in practically every white collar suburb in California, by the very voting blocks that were once the backbone of Reaganism.

The last Republican Assembly seat in the San Francisco Bay Area fell to the Democrats, thus shutting the door on Republicans in Silicon Valley and its environs. Even more dramatic was the collapse in the southern California suburbs, where GOP legislative candidates barely won in district after district that were safely Republican as recently as four year ago.

The only marginal political territory left in Los Angeles County is now, get this, the Antelope Valley. A completely unknown Democrat from Palmdale just got 48 percent in an Assembly district that had been safe for three decades. Over the past 20 years, Republicans have lost once safe districts in Burbank, Glendale, Pasadena, Long Beach, Torrance, Downey and Ontario. There is no reason to believe the Antelope Valley will not be next; Sen. George Runner is probably the last GOP official to represent that area.

Republicans have spent years in denial while suburb after suburb has gone Democratic, hallucinating that “proud pro-life conservatives” can still win in California. Voters just turned down parental consent for abortion for the third time; how many times do Republicans need to be told this is a pro-choice state. Their social issue stands have destroyed the GOP in California’s suburbs. Don’t believe me? Look at a map.

But it is their xenophobic attitude toward Latinos, that dates all the way back to Gov. Pete Wilson and Proposition 187, that has done the most to sink the GOP. Minority owned small businesses are the fastest growing. Asians and Latinos are moving into the suburbs. Virtually every district Republicans have lost over the past 20 years shows Latino suburban and middle class growth.

Have Republicans learned anything from this? Obviously not; over the past two years they metastasized the Proposition 187 cancer into Latino bashing over “amnesty” to illegal workers, and they threw away the one positive demographic of the Bush years, his appeal to Latino voters. Reagan entrepreneurism became know nothing nativism. The price was the GOP’s dismal showing, not only in California but throughout the west in 2008.

After the McCain-Palin disaster in November, Lexington, The Economist’s American columnist, called the GOP a “party of rednecks.” “The Republican Party’s current ‘redneck’ strategy will leave it appealing to a shrinking and backward looking part of the electorate.” That is surely the case in California; the once powerful Reagan coalition has been reduced to downscale and elderly white voters. Republicans can still win in small towns and retirement areas where voters have fled to escape the cultural changes that are occurring in California, but that is about it.

At 31.3 percent of registered voters, California Republicans are at the lowest point in the history of the state. And they will go lower, as elderly white voters pass on. Sometime in the next decade, decline to state registrants will pass Republicans.

Maybe the GOP will come to its senses, but it is very unlikely. Republicans hold not a single district other than those gerrymandered for them in the 2001 redistricting, and the gerrymander will disappear in 2011, thanks to Proposition 11. Perhaps return to an open primary would allow Republicans to nominate candidates who can still win outside gerrymandered districts. But count on the myopic state GOP leadership to fight to keep the primary closed so they can control a dying party of geriatric voters.

So last rites are in order for the California GOP. May God have mercy on its soul, for the state’s voters have had none.

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