As a lifelong Californian, there are few political lies more infuriating to me than the suggestion, repeated recently in the New York Times, that President Trump is somehow at fault for the decline of the California Republican Party.
The story goes something like this: Because Trump is tough on immigration, he has made Republicans even more unpopular in the Golden State, because the large Latino population allegedly cannot abide restrictions on illegal immigration. The recently announced retirements of long-time Republican congressmen Ed Royce and Darrell Issa underscores the Times’s claim.
If only it were so simple. Republicans in California have been on the decline for the better part of 25 years. In 1994, Republican Governor Pete Wilson championed Proposition 187, a ballot measure that sought to bar illegal aliens from receiving public services such as education and healthcare. Although the initiative passed with almost 59 percent of the vote, it was undone by legal challenges. A left-wing federal judge eventually struck down the law, ruling that enforcing immigration laws was the federal government’s responsibility.
Majorities of every ethnic group in California supported Prop. 187—except Latinos. California’s Democrats saw the messaging potential in the aftermath of that divisive campaign. As the effects of President Reagan’s amnesty in 1986 combined with the strength of the state’s agricultural labor market (which drew thousands of new immigrant laborers), Democrats knew that turning Latinos against Republicans would pay off in the long run.
And it did. A study by the Field Institute shows a clear drop in Latino support for California Republicans after 1994. Republican Governor George Deukmejian received 46 percent of the Latino vote in his 1986 reelection campaign. Wilson got 47 percent of the Latino vote in 1990. That number plunged to less than 25 percent in 1994—about the same number that supported Prop. 187. Since then, the Republican share of the Latino vote in California has never risen above 30 percent, with the sole exception of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s re-election in 2006, when he drew roughly 39 percent.
Schwarzenegger’s disappointing tenure as governor was born out of the post-Prop. 187 mindset that the rightward drift of the party (especially, but not limited to immigration) was to blame for Republicans’ waning fortunes statewide. State party leaders and their donors concluded that a hardline position on anything was a loser, and so a great rush to the center began.
Schwarzenegger blurred the lines between Democrats and Republicans as he raised taxes, supported same-sex marriage, and gave the state government nearly unlimited power to regulate the energy market to reduce carbon emissions. Despite initial Republican opposition to some of his more left-wing policies, Schwarzenegger’s landslide reelection in 2006 seemed to vindicate his moderate approach, and was directly responsible for the moderation of the party as a whole.
The result speaks for itself. The most recent GOP gubernatorial nominee was Neel Kashkari, an Illinois native and now president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. He ran in 2014 as “a different kind of Republican,” which is to say, not much of a Republican at all. He was pro-same sex marriage, pro-amnesty, pro-abortion, pro-gun control, supported government regulations on carbon emissions, and, incidentally, voted for Barack Obama in 2008 over John McCain. Jerry Brown crushed him by 19 points. Brown had a bit more of a challenge in 2010 with former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, who ran as a Schwarzenegger clone. She lost by just 11 points. Whitman has gone on to establish herself as an outspoken anti-Trump Republican. She endorsed and donated to Hillary Clinton’s campaign while comparing Donald Trump to Hitler and Mussolini.
Other moderates in the state party have hurt its standing in the legislature as well. Former Assemblywoman Ling Ling Chang lost a state senate election in 2016, in a reliably red district, because she had voted for several anti-gun bills. This led to the Democrats regaining a two-thirds “supermajority” in that chamber.
Former Assembly Minority Leader Chad Mayes led eight Republican legislators in 2017 to vote with the Democrats for a bill to extend the state’s “cap-and-trade” program, which sets limits on greenhouse gas emissions and allows “polluters” to buy special licenses from the state. Mayes was forced to resign after over 20 county central committees and the state party’s board all called on him to step down.
Now, Schwarzenegger and Mayes have formed a new organization called “New Way California” with the idea of making the party even more moderate. Chang is considered a potential candidate for Royce’s seat, while one of the eight Republicans who voted for cap-and-trade—Assemblyman Rocky Chavez of Oceanside—is running for Issa’s seat, with Schwarzenegger’s endorsement. Chavez told the New York Times he would not have voted for last year’s historic tax reform bill.
And yet Schwarzenegger, Mayes, and the Times would have you believe that Trump is to blame for the state party’s implosion. Bill Whalen, a former aide to Pete Wilson who has remained staunchly loyal to his former boss, told the Times that the California GOP’s real problem is having to defend Trump’s positions.
But Trump’s polarizing presidency doesn’t explain the fact that the party’s registration numbers in the Golden State have plummeted from 37.2 percent in 1994 to 25.9 percent. Democrats, meanwhile, have 44.8 percent of registered voters. Trump’s presidency cannot explain why not one Republican has won a statewide contest since 2006. Trump’s existence does not explain why Republicans were completely shut out of the 2016 California U.S. Senate race. Under the state’s insipid top-two primary law—a moderate Republican-backed initiative, by the way—two Democrats faced off in the general election. Trump won’t be at fault, either, if and when the Republicans are excluded from this year’s gubernatorial race.
And never mind the fact that not a single House Republican in California lost their seat in 2016—the one year that was most ripe for a Republican reckoning over Trump’s candidacy. Even Republicans in districts that voted for Hillary Clinton—such as David Valadao in Kern County, Steve Knight in the Antelope Valley north of Los Angeles, Darrell Issa in north San Diego County, and Jeff Denham in Modesto—all survived their reelection bids with relative ease. Where was this “Trump effect” then?
No, pay no mind to such bothersome facts. Moderate Republicans and their fair-weather fans in the mainstream press would rather peddle the tale that Trump, who launched his presidential campaign in mid-2015, is to blame for 24 years of Republican folly. Right. As the future president said in his cameo appearance on Fresh Prince of Bel-Air: “Everybody’s always blaming me for everything.”
Only state Republican Party Chairman Jim Brulte gets it right. Brulte rejects the narrative that Trump’s presidency is pushing “a party already struggling closer to the brink.” “Republicans lost every statewide race in California in 2002, 2010 and 2014, before Donald Trump even announced he was running for president,” he told the Times. Anyone arguing otherwise, Brulte added, is “a revisionist historian.”
California Republicans, with very few exceptions, never seem to learn from their mistakes. The rhetoric surrounding Proposition 187 may have been a blunder, but it needn’t have been fatal. Republicans instead decided to moderate themselves into irrelevance. The result now is that statewide elections are no longer referendums on Democrats versus Republicans, but moderate-Left Democrats versus hard-Left Democrats. Why bother with ersatz Democrat Republicans when Californians can choose the real thing?
Trump’s presidency is an opportunity for the Republicans to reinvigorate themselves. California’s pale-pastel Republicans seem intent repeating the same old mistakes.