California Republicans: Are They Back?

It runs counter to conventional narrative but last month the California GOP had its best election cycle in almost two decades. In a May special election, the GOP recaptured a seat they had lost in 2018 anchored in the LA exurbs (CA – 25). It also looks like after all the votes are captured from last month, the GOP will maintain this seat by the narrowest of margins and retake three additional seats they lost in 2018. If not for recruiting misses it could have been more.

It has not been since 2000 the GOP has captured a single seat in the state. It has been even longer since the GOP took out a single incumbent, 1994, and this year they look likely to repeat the feat a whopping four times (CA -25, .epublican Michelle Steel beating Democratic Rep. Harley Rouda in a coastal Orange County district, Republican Young Kim dispatching Rep. Gil Cisneros,and former Rep. David Valadao defeating Democratic Rep. TJ Cox to reclaim his Central Valley seat).

The victories did not stop there. Statewide, despite Joe Biden winning by over five millions votes and 30 percent, voters shot down a rent control measure, new business taxes and maintained the state’s ban on making race a factor in university admissions and government hiring practices. Add to this the GOP reclaimed its status as the second largest party in the state (retaking it from unaffiliated) and Republicans were positively giddy.

Yet, despite these successes, the GOP is still twenty points behind Democrats in voter registration. Additionally, the best Republican performance in the state in the last two decades was George Bush and he lost it by 10 percent and a million votes back in 2004.

Yet, nobody is arguing the California GOP is suddenly back from the dead. Rather, they should not be written off. The same factors roiling our national politics are playing out in CA where voters are swapping sides and the traditional, well – off, white, Orange County Republican is not the only Republican in the region anymore.

Case in point would be the Republicans in Orange County who won their close contests. Both Michelle Steele and Young Kim are Asian – American and outperformed the President in their districts.

For the GOP, this suggests a path post – Trump. One where the populist ideology can be mixed with a more ethnically and culturally representative delegation of the state. The icing on the cake was these victories occurred in a Presidential year when turnout is near 80 percent and past cycles have been disasterous for the party.

California Republicans argue it should be a wake – up call for the Democrats. However, Democrats counter they have super – majorities in the legislature, control every statewide office and control many local governmental institutions which create a feeding ground of future candidates.

The results reflect the difference between a D+8 environment and a D+2 environment. But, the GOP also significantly increased its turnout and outreach efforts. Nowhere was this more evident than in the GOP adopting the practice of ballot harvesting – whereby a single individual will drop off multiple ballots.

The election also flipped the post – traditional California script where the GOP would downplay local and congressional losses by arguing they won local races. This time, it was Democrats who claimed they had gained ground in Orange County though the County Supervisors remains predominately Republican: 4R – 1D.

Not surprisingly, Democrats downplayed the results though they did note how the lack of an agenda appealing to minorities cost them votes. Statewide, Democrats maintain a vice – grip on power due to their strength in the NoCA suburbs and SoCA’s large suburban and urban populations.

It is also true winning 11 of 53 races in a state should not excite anybody. But, the fact the GOP flipped four seats gets them that much closer to power in 2022 than they started out in 2021. Further, it remains true, it is harder to beat an incumbent than facing off against a challenger in an open seat contest. More importantly, it gives the state GOP hope.

In 2018, the state’s Democratic Governor, Gavin Newsom, beat his Republican opponent, John Cox, two years ago by about 3 million votes and has enjoyed high public approval ratings. But he has been beset recently by controversy surrounding his attendance at a birthday party at a fancy restaurant amid the pandemic. San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, a moderate Republican, said recently that he is “seriously considering” a run for governor.

For Republicans, a Faulconer run would be a dream come true. A moderate Republican with name ID and experience running would mimic what other blue – state GOP Governors have done in Vermont, Maryland, New Hampshire and even Massachusetts.

The 2020 election did not rescue the CA GOP from its problems. But, it kept them relevant right at a time when the midterms might set the state party and their national brothers and sisters up for greater success.


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