The GOP's California Blues

By Whalen, Bill | Policy Review, February 2002 | Go to article overview
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The GOP's California Blues


Whalen, Bill, Policy Review


NINETEEN EIGHTY-EIGHT is the answer to two California trivia questions: It's the last time the Dodgers won in the post-season and also the last time a Republican won either a presidential or Senate election in the Golden State. The baseball metaphor is appropriate: If the big leagues ran the state parties, the California GOP, with few wins, a fractious roster, and a market that seemingly cares little for the Republicans' product, would seem an inviting target for either relocation or consolidation.

It's the new reality of the land that gave birth to the Reagan Revolution. Republican folklore has long honored California as a kingmaker and a well-spring of Republican ambition. In eight of the 10 presidential elections from 1948 to 1984, at least one California Republican -- Earl Warren, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan -- was on the Republican ticket. California's Orange County, home of John Wayne Airport, remains the spiritual homeland of paleoconservatives, a place where you can occasionally still find an "[AuH.sub.2]O" bumper sticker. But California is fast becoming a graveyard for Republican fortunes.

Dating back to 1996, California has gone Democratic in each and every presidential, gubernatorial, and U.S. Senate election -- while Texas has done precisely the opposite. One of those Republicans in whom Texans placed their trust, George W. Bush, sank approximately $15 million into his California operation during the course of the 2000 election yet managed to lose the state by more votes than Bob Dole did four years earlier. In that same election, California Republicans dropped four congressional seats, four assembly seats, and a state senate seat. Republicans are now outnumbered 32-20 in California's U.S. House delegation. Democrats enjoy nearly two thirds majorities in both houses of the state legislature.

And there's more. Only one of California's six state constitutional offices is held by a Republican -- secretary of state -- and it's not much of a partisan office at that; California's secretary of state traditionally champions "good government" issues like voter turnout and registration. Look on the state party's website and you'll see pictures of the president, the vice president, Colin Powell, and Donald Rumsfeld. But not one Californian, not even Condoleeza Rice, President Bush's national security advisor.

The fading of California Republicanism might spell disaster for the party nationally. Conventional wisdom holds that American political trends flow like the jet stream -- west to east. In theory, that means voting trends that emerge in California eventually find their way to Washington. Exhibit A in this argument is Proposition 13, the California tax revolt of 1978. Two years after that vote, Reagan was swept into the White House running on a similar theme of lower taxes and frustration with government. Since Proposition 13, the press has actually oversold California's importance by assuming that almost every initiative that stirs up controversy in California has national implications. That's not always the case, yet California still deserves a fair bit of the attention of national trend-spotters.

On the other hand, should Republicans reemerge as a major force there, California would virtually clinch electoral success for the party. If, in the 2004 election, President Bush were to win his native Texas (now 34 electoral votes) and his brother Jeb's Florida (27 more), California's 5 electoral votes alone would push the president more than 40 percent of the way toward reelection -- with only three states. A Democratic challenger would need to win nearly two-thirds of the remaining electoral votes, 270 of 422, to win the election. That's nearly impossible, given Republican advantages across the "blue state" Deep South and Great Plains. California is a necessity for Democrats. If Bush somehow could carry the state, California becomes Republican insurance.

But in the meantime, the 2002 election represents an uphill climb for Republicans both as a party out of power and as a party in decline.

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