Where is the California Republican Party headed after Tuesday? That depends on who wins the right to face Jerry Brown and what they do with that opportunity. There are two answers, one if Donnelly wins, another if Kashkari wins, but the answers are political equivalents: decide between healing the rift and moving forward or annihilating the internal opposition to rebrand and unify the party by force.
If Kashkari wins: If Kashkari’s last ditch infusion of cash to fund aggressive media-war hits on Donnelly succeeds; if the moderate base voters are energized by the Brass who at the last moment are ginning up fear of the ruination and collapse of the California Republican Party (a legitimate fear in the short run) with dire repercussions nationally; if a “silent majority” of center right voters turn out in numbers sufficient to eke out a Kashkari win, then winning Kashkari moderates may choose to be magnanimous in victory and heal the rift with the passionate, hard-core right wing of the party.
Can this be done? It will be exceedingly difficult.
The Kashkari moderates will have to first fully grasp the political reality that without the passionate base the CRP shrinks from 28% to probably well below 20% in state-wide registration. Political losers tend to give up and drop out. Defeat creates a disillusioned and depressed base electorate that might stay home for many cycles.
And to the extent they are true believers, red meat base voters reject self-criticism and instead substitute conspiracy theories about why they lost. They often double down on their belief systems, blaming others. The others are “evil, cynical, manipulative,” etc. Their generals (Donnelly et al) are heroic martyrs to the True Cause.
Might the winning Kashkari moderates never think the problem through sufficiently or find the necessary leadership to reach out to heal the rift with the losers? Or, might winning Kashkari moderates instead decide it is better to kill off the wounded army through party purges and convention hardball? Difficult questions all.
In American politics, insurgencies from the base typically have a shelf life of a few years at best. Many believe the Tea Party is a spent force, that Donnelly is the last gasp. They will point to recent success by establishment incumbents against insurgents.
There will be voices whispering privately for the annihilation of the Tea Party in California. They will say something like this: “Okay, we’ll lose 5% to 10% of our hard core GOP voters and shrink to 20% CA registration for a spell. But the hard right base will come back. They have nowhere else to go. And we’ll gain plenty of votes in the center.” The problem is, the strategists will make these claims based on “their gut,” without any hard data. So this will be a high risk proposition.
If Donnelly wins: If Donnelly’s current polling lead holds; if he ekes out what may be a narrow win given the power of the money and media on the establishment side, then he will have to moderate his positions to avoid a total rout against Brown. If Donnelly is the smart politician many believe him to be, he will do the classic “move to the center” that is a staple of American politics.
This “move to the center” is absolutely necessary in a two party system. Were we a European style parliamentary democracy, we could all afford to be “true to our party principles, no matter what,” because the coalition building and compromise gets done intra-party. Instead, in our two party American system, the coalitions and compromises must be built inter-party.
Donnelly as a Tea Party hot head would in fact be a disaster for the California GOP, with consequences for the national elections. The GOP might lose close Senate and House races if the Democrats made Donnelly the poster boy for Republican “craziness.”
It is my strong belief that Donnelly—if he wins—will do the smart thing and moderate. In fact, I personally approached Tim at a shared candidate event in San Francisco to propose he do a “Nixon-in-China,” move on immigration. I’m not sure Tim Donnelly was listening closely to this minor candidate who got 3 minutes before his 30 minutes speech, but here’s the proposal in a nutshell.
Donnelly is the ideal candidate as the primary winner to come out for a sensible immigration reform package. He’s got a Filipina wife and a Mexican in-law family member and has won a higher proportion of Latino support in recent polling than Kashkari. Apparently, many Latino’s do NOT hate or fear Tim. Many trust him, perhaps because he is perceived as hardball but honest.
Nixon was able to open relationships with Communist China—precisely because he had a reputation for being a security and anti-Communist hawk. Likewise, Reagan was able to negotiate SALT treaties with Gorbachev—precisely because he had a reputation for being a military hawk. Donnelly is smart enough a politician to realize just how powerful a move towards immigration reform could be. It could make him as a national politician.
Were he to begin to cautiously support Congressman Denham’s bill to give immigrant military personnel a pathway to citizenship that would be a start. But if over the course of his gubernatorial candidacy he were to carefully build momentum for a more comprehensive reform, including high tech work visas, a new Bracero program without a pathway to citizenship (polling shows this is what many Latinos want), etc. but with solid border control (he’s an expert on that) and iron clad guarantees against social program plunder, then Donnelly would not only take all the wind out of the Democrat sails that he is a racist and troglodyte, he’d become an immigration statesman.
Brown would likely still win. But Donnelly would then not be annihilated in an 80/20 catastrophe, he’d instead lose by perhaps 60/40. Or who knows? If the donors got in, he might only lose 55/45. And he’d be the next congressman from the High Desert for life.