Irreconcilable Differences: California’s GOP Falters From Within

Two very different visions for California. Steve Garvey, the leading Republican, is too conservative for California. He voted for Trump, twice, and supported Republicans for years.
– Adam Schiff campaign ad, February 2024

Usually, whenever you hear anything coming from Congressman Adam Schiff, a creature of the D.C. swamp for nearly 25 years, it’s likely the exact opposite is true. But he’s right about one thing: there are two very different visions for California. They couldn’t be further apart.

Democrats want California’s public schools to remain in the iron grip of left-wing teachers’ unions. They want to continue to enforce racist policies in defiance of even California’s voters, who in November 2020 decisively rejected their attempt to repeal affirmative action. They want to force Californians to pay the highest prices in the United States for rationed energy and water. They resist laws that might once again make crime illegal in this once safe state, and they want to continue to give politically connected developers tens of billions of dollars to construct housing for the homeless, a policy guaranteed to keep the vast majority on the street to die slow deaths. There’s much more. The system is set up to reward indolence and resentment. Hard workers are dupes.

The State of California is a textbook example of what happens when leftist oligarchs, environmentalist extremists, academic socialists, corporatists and crony capitalists, labor unions (mostly in the public sector), ambulance-chasing trial lawyers, and a media best described collectively as negligent, lazy cowards all join hands and decide to loot the middle class. The people being driven out of California are variously described by Democrats as too privileged, too independent, too unsustainable, recalcitrant, troglodytic, superseded, irrelevant, unwanted, and guilty by reason of whiteness. The attitude of California’s upper class towards the people whose hard work built the state is either hurry up and die or get lost and good riddance.

California is fast becoming a feudal economy, with the aforementioned upper class doling out alms to a dependent lower class that reliably votes for them in exchange for more promises. The middle class and any chance for ordinary people to attain financial independence are being systematically destroyed under the guise of climate and equity. This political economy is fast being exported to the rest of the United States and, by extension, everywhere else in the world where a pesky, resource-guzzling middle class has arisen.

Schiff got something else right in his presumptuous ad. He correctly calculated that uttering the name “Trump” and associating his Republican opponent with Trump and MAGA policies would be the most effective way to undermine that opponent. And in that comment, Schiff also inadvertently touched on the problem that is killing California’s Republican Party. To Trump or not to Trump. To MAGA or not to MAGA.

Irreconcilable Differences?

The schism in California’s Republican Party precedes Trump. The party has been split on how to handle social issues and immigration policy for decades. Democrats have successfully stigmatized all Republicans as race bigots ever since the party supported Prop. 187 in 1994, which would have prevented illegal immigrants from receiving public healthcare services, and as gender bigots ever since Prop. 8 in 2008, which banned gay marriage. California’s voters, by the way, approved both of these measures.

When Trump came along, however, the Democrats were able to hold him before gullible voters as the personification of racism and bigotry. Trump’s pugilistic spontaneity played into the hands of Democratic candidates and campaign consultants who, already armed with far more money than Republicans could ever hope to raise, simply tagged every Republican candidate with guilt by association, and their candidates kept on winning. In 2016, the GOP still controlled a dismal 25 out of 80 seats in the State Assembly. By 2022, that number had declined to only 18 GOP seats. Similarly, in 2016, the GOP controlled 13 of the 40 seats in the State Senate, and by 2022, that number had fallen to only eight GOP seats.

This is the quandary that California’s state GOP leadership confronts. Trump earned 6.0 million votes in California in 2020, up from 3.9 million in 2016. Trump earned substantially more votes in California than the 4.8 million registered Republicans in the state at that time. But despite having a solid base in the increasingly polarized state, Trump is represented by Democrats as a toxic brand, which condemns GOP party leadership and any politician not residing in one of the diminishing number of safe Republican districts to either publicly renounce him or have no chance of being elected.

How do you turn this around if you can’t unite? Republican registration in California is up slightly since 2020, increasing to 5.3 million. But Democratic registration, thanks to a system saturated with money and set up to sweep in every holder of a driver’s license and every college student, has surged since 2020 from 8.9 million to 10.6 million. You may call this the product of voter fraud, or just call it what is beyond debate, the product of a nearly omnipotent political machine. Whatever it is, it rolls on, saving people from the Trump boogeyman. Many of these registered Democrats can perhaps be forgiven because they have never heard the other side of the story.

A state party and its candidates can afford to be disunited when they have billions to play with. That would be California’s Democrats. Regardless of how you may assess their unity or lack of unity, they’re loaded. Adam Schiff, as a candidate still in primary season, already has $35 million stockpiled for his campaign. His principle primary rival among the Democrats, Katie Porter, has $13 million on hand. Which brings us to Steve Garvey, the Republican, who, according to his own campaign consultants, has raised a whopping $1.2 million through the end of January. You can’t run a campaign for U.S. Senate in California, with 39 million people and 7 major media markets, on $1.2 million. And it gets worse.

Two GOP Candidates, Two Strategies

For several years, a solid GOP candidate has quietly earned credibility among California’s grassroots voters through smart, resourceful campaigning, thoughtful policy positions, an articulate delivery, and an uncompromising stance on the issues that matter to conservatives. I asked Eric Early, also running for U.S. Senate, what happened. In California’s top-two primary, if Republicans split the vote, Californians will have a choice between two Democrats in November.

Early explained his reasons for entering the race. At the time he declared, there were no other Republicans considering running who might have a chance to make it through the primaries, while at the same time, three competitive Democrats (Schiff, Porter, and Barbara Lee) had already lined up. With the possibility that these three Democrats would split their party’s votes, Early saw an opportunity to capture votes from a unified GOP and advance to the general election.

Steve Garvey belatedly decided to become a candidate after polling showed Early to actually hold a lead against the other three Democrats. He was recruited because of his name recognition, although one must realize that Garvey’s celebrity status is tempered by the fact that he retired from baseball nearly 40 years ago. Garvey was a big star in his day, but if you’re under the age of 60, or even if you’re over 60 but never followed baseball, he is pretty much an unknown.

Perhaps Garvey’s appeal lies in his potential to raise big bucks from donors who themselves fall into his favored category—old baseball fans living in Southern California. That slice of California’s electorate probably does have a disproportionate ability to pony up cash for the candidate of their choice. But how’s that working out so far? Will anyone bet the ballpark on Garvey?

So far, Garvey is doing as good a job as can be expected of walking a difficult tightrope. If he falls off to one side, it will be because he didn’t sufficiently renounce membership of the Trump cult and hence lost every moderate voter. If he falls off to the other side, it will be because, in the process of distancing himself from Trump, he failed to rise above the vapid clichés and grasping RINO pablum that have by now completely alienated California’s conservative grassroots. Embrace Trump, lose the moderates. Reject Trump, lose the GOP grassroots, six million strong.

The Path to Reconciliation

Ultimately, what it takes for a candidate to walk this political tightrope, if that is even possible, is to reject Trump at the same time as you endorse, with no reservations, nearly every policy Trump stands for. The challenge, should one accept it as their only option, is to separate MAGA from Trump. Because the primary goals of MAGA are sound. They rest on several broad and coherent planks: Controlled, merit-based immigration. Fair, reciprocal trade with other nations. Pragmatic energy and infrastructure policies that balance the needs of people and the environment. Colorblind merit over mandated quotas based on race and gender. Law and order. More accountability and common sense in public education and less politicized curricula. And maintaining strategic and technological supremacy instead of engaging in regime change wars all over the world.

Those were Trump’s policies during his first presidency. They hold up to scrutiny. They are coherent. In the hands of the right U.S. Senate candidate, they are winning planks to loudly proclaim, even in California. A Machiavellian Democratic political consultant will effectively use Trump to stigmatize MAGA. But they cannot use MAGA, when it is accurately and resolutely articulated, to stigmatize every other Republican candidate on the ballot.

Eric Early, Garvey’s GOP rival who preceded him in announcing his candidacy, put it this way. “If we are going to go down in the general election, at least let’s not go down like a bunch of patsies. If we try to be Democrat-Lite, we lose. There is only one principled conservative in this race who will walk it and talk it. I won’t go down as just another patsy, hoping that the media will somehow take a liking to me.” Early describes the schism among Republicans as succinctly as it can be expressed, saying “there are Never Trumpers and there are Trump supporters.”

If you accept Early’s argument, then reconciling California’s GOP’s grassroots with its donors comes down to finding candidates that are not trying to be Democrat-Lite. MAGA policies offer a common-sense, surprisingly moderate, comprehensive, hopeful, constructive alternative to the mess Democrats have made of California. If all you can say is Democrats are bad, we’re not Democrats, and we disavow Trump, you have nothing to offer.

Unfortunately, for the last several years, in an attempt to attract donors, attract fair media coverage, and attract independent voters, California’s state GOP has fitfully navigated the precarious and irreconcilable political tightrope with donors and moderates on one side and their grassroots on the other. It has been an impossible journey that has only taken them backwards. At this point, with the registration gap widening, hopelessly outgunned financially, with no power whatsoever in the state legislature, and having alienated their own base, it’s time to recognize that the state party has lost its footing.

There is another way. Understanding MAGA, expressing MAGA, and persuasively making the case for MAGA right here in California, that is what still offers the GOP a path to unity, voters, donors, and victory.

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About Edward Ring

Edward Ring is a senior fellow of the Center for American Greatness. He is also the director of water and energy policy for the California Policy Center, which he co-founded in 2013 and served as its first president. Ring is the author of Fixing California: Abundance, Pragmatism, Optimism (2021) and The Abundance Choice: Our Fight for More Water in California (2022).

Photo: Sacramento California outside the capital building