Here’s a rundown on the sad state of the Republican party in California. Republicans haven’t won a Senate contest since 1990. George H. W. Bush was the last Republican presidential candidate to win here. That was in 1988. Barack Obama was reelected with a larger percentage of the vote in 2012 (59 percent) than Ronald Reagan in 1984 (58 percent). And it was long ago in 1976 when S. I. Hayakawa ousted John Tunney from his Senate seat—the last Republican challenger to knock off an incumbent Democrat in a Senate or governor’s race. Since then, 38 years have passed, a span in which some elections have gone very well for Republicans (in 1980, 1984, 1994, 2002, 2010) but usually not in California.
There’s one anomaly: movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger. He replaced Democratic governor Grey Davis in a recall election in 2003 and was reelected in 2006. Though he didn’t govern like a Republican, he was one. The Schwarzenegger era is associated with steep Republican decline.
“Carly Fiorina was my last big hope,” says Shawn Steel, the GOP national committeeman from California. In 2010, she ran against Democratic senator Barbara Boxer, who claimed California would be economically rejuvenated by a wave of “green jobs.” Fiorina was an excellent candidate, well funded, smart, attractive, an able debater. Plus it was a Republican year. Fiorina lost by 10 percentage points and now lives in Virginia. And California still awaits Boxer’s green jobs.
But 2010 wasn’t the bottom for Republicans. That came two years later when Democrats won majorities of better than 2 to 1 in both chambers in the state legislature. That allows them to pass tax hikes and spending bills without worrying about lonely Republicans.
But suddenly there’s hope again, especially since Jim Brulte, former leader of the Republicans in the California state senate, became state party chairman a year ago. His goal is to build the party gradually toward a breakthrough in 2018. That sounds modest. Republicans such as Hugh Hewitt, the popular talk radio host, think it’s optimistic. Steel believes “objective conditions” must change in California for Republicans to recover.
Bill Whalen, a political analyst at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, likens the Brulte strategy to that of the Oakland Athletics baseball team. The A’s built from the bottom with young, cheap talent and now have one of the top teams in major league baseball. The contrast is with the New York Yankees, who sign expensive baseball stars at the peak of their careers. For Republicans, this strategy would consist of luring a Hollywood star—Gary Sinise comes to mind—to run against Boxer in 2016 or for governor two years later. That won’t fly anymore. Schwarzenegger killed that strategy.
California Republicans are the A’s before they got good. They have a long ways to go. Their bench is sparse. There’s no statewide political figure of note on their side. Their gubernatorial candidate, Neel Kashkari, is wealthy and impressive, but his chances of beating Governor Jerry Brown are close to nil. Still, a strong showing would allow Kashkari, 40, who supervised the TARP bank bailout in Washington in 2008 and 2009, to live to run statewide another day, perhaps against Boxer.
It’s pretty simple why Republicans collapsed in California. The state changed. They didn’t. The Hispanic and Asian electorates grew without attracting heavy GOP attention. In 1990, Republicans were 39 percent of registered voters. Today they’re 29 percent. In the past two decades, four million middle-class families have left California. The guess is a majority were Republicans or at least Republican-minded. “We are exporting Republicans,” Steel says.
The demographics are daunting for Republicans. The state is 39 percent Latino, 38.8 percent white, 13 percent Asian, 5.8 percent black. Democratic voters consist of California’s rich, poor, and Asians. The middle class is dominated by unionized state and local government workers. That doesn’t leave much for Republicans.
So what’s the basis for hope for the GOP? First, their prospects for gains in the November election are bright—small gains, that is. To eliminate the Democratic supermajorities in Sacramento, Republicans must net two seats in the assembly and, with three Democratic senators suspended on corruption charges, prevent Democrats from winning back two seats. With a favorable political climate, both goals are achievable. Republicans are also angling to pick up two or three House seats in Washington, one by electing the first openly gay Republican to Congress, Carl DeMaio. This, too, is quite possible.
Second, Republicans are making a long-overdue effort to capture more of the Asian vote. The Asian population is growing faster than Hispanics—by 2 percent each election cycle as a percentage of the voting population. And Asians appear more receptive to GOP overtures than Hispanics. Steel invested in a test of Asian voters in Nevada in 2012: When heavily courted by mail and phone calls, 47 percent voted for Mitt Romney, far more than in California (23 percent) or nationally (24 percent).
“If you speak to them, you are going to get a lot of them,” Steel says. In Orange County, four Asian women are running as Republicans this year, three for the legislature, one for the country board of supervisors. This, by itself, changes the face of the GOP in a region with a soaring Asian electorate.
Third, Republicans are focused on grooming candidates capable of winning statewide. Today every California official elected statewide is a Democrat. But DeMaio, 39, and another House candidate, Navy veteran Jeff Gorell, 43, are potential statewide candidates. The new mayor of San Diego, Kevin Faulconer, won in a recent special election. Should he win reelection in a general election, his status as a statewide candidate will soar.
But it’s Fresno mayor Ashley Swearengin, 42, who has generated the highest hopes. Brulte, who generally plays down expectations, encouraged her to run for state controller. Now she’s regarded as the Republican with the best chance of winning a statewide election. She was elected mayor in 2008, then reelected in 2012 with
75 percent of the vote.
As controller, Swearengin would have the opportunity to get statewide recognition. The controller must certify the state budget is balanced. This could put her in a highly publicized fight with Gov. Brown. She would also have the authority to audit state government agencies.
“She’s a superstar,” one Republican says. If elected, she would instantly be touted as a candidate for governor in 2018, when Brown retires. Her election as controller, however, is hardly a cinch. As a Republican, she’s a slight underdog.
In their eagerness to court Asians, Republicans would be unwise to neglect Hispanics. Hewitt, the radio talk show host, says 10 years from now, every Republican running statewide had better speak Spanish. If they don’t, they’ll lose. That’s an experience they’re familiar with.
Fred Barnes is an executive editor at The Weekly Standard.