It’s no secret that the California Republican Party has been on a very steady decline over the last twenty years. A number of factors can be blamed for this trend, from the implementation of the state’s top-two primary system, to the ongoing demographic shifts in the state due to mass illegal immigration that only produces millions of new Democratic voters.
But if there is to be one final nail in the California GOP’s coffin, it will be the growing divide between the more conservative grassroots base and the increasingly-moderate state party’s leadership.
Party Leadership Showdown
In late July, it was announced that a new Vice Chairman of the California GOP had been selected: Former Assemblyman David Hadley, succeeding former Assembly Minority Leader Kristin Olsen after she resigned in October of 2017.
Hadley is a self-described moderate on social issues, particularly regarding the environment, and admittedly did not vote for Donald Trump in 2016. He served one term in the California State Assembly from the 66th District, when he defeated Los Angeles Democrat Al Muratsuchi in 2014, only to lose in a rematch with Muratsuchi in 2016. He briefly joined the gubernatorial race in July of 2017, but suddenly withdrew just two weeks later.
As the Los Angeles Times has noted, Hadley “has ties to prominent donors, relationships that could prove vital if next year’s chairman’s race is contested.” The latter appears to have become reality, as Chairman Jim Brulte—the longest-serving chairman in the party’s history—has announced that he will not seek another term after serving for six years. This appears to have all but guaranteed Hadley a straight shot to become the next chairman.
That is, until news broke earlier this week that one other prominent name is strongly considering a run for chair as well: Assemblyman Travis Allen of Orange County, who also ran for Governor but, unlike Hadley, did not drop out after just two weeks. One of two major Republican candidates for Governor, Allen ultimately came in fourth in the primary, after running on a much more explicitly populist, pro-Trump platform of stricter border security and fighting the newly-enacted “sanctuary state” law.
Since one cannot run for two different offices in the same election in California, Allen is not running for re-election to his seat in the 72nd Assembly District (which he has held for six years), leading to speculation that he was planning something beyond the gubernatorial race. A month after his loss in the June 5th primary, Allen announced that he was forming a new conservative PAC, the “Taking Back California PAC,” in order to “organize and support candidates” who share his platform.
Grassroots Conservatives Against Establishment Moderates
If Allen ultimately decides to jump into the race for chair, then it will be yet another iteration of the seemingly endless ideological rift between the two major sects of the California GOP: The grassroots base against the moderate party elites and their handful of supporters.
Most prominently, this divide has been clear as day in all of the last three gubernatorial primaries. The races in 2010, 2014, and 2018 all saw similar contests between a conservative office-holder, popular with the grassroots, and wealthy moderates who were flown in from out-of-state just to buy the nomination with their own millions, supported by party leadership.
Such is how then Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner lost to Meg Whitman and her $144 million in 2010 after running to her right on such issues as immigration, while Whitman went on to become one of the most vicious anti-Trump Republicans in the country (even comparing him to Hitler and Mussolini). And in 2014, Assemblyman Tim Donnelly lost to a candidate who is pro-choice, pro-gun control, pro-amnesty, pro-same sex marriage, a believer in global warming... and that wasn’t Jerry Brown; that was the other Republican, former Goldman Sachs banker Neel Kashkari.
This year, there were only slight differences. Allen, also an Assemblyman, initially polled ahead of Illinois businessman John Cox as he campaigned on key issues such as immigration and recent tax increases, while Cox initially ran on sensationalist ideas like increasing the number of state lawmakers to 12,000. But when Cox started copying Allen’s talking points—even taking Allen’s original slogan of “Take Back California”—he began gaining traction. The deal was sealed when Cox was endorsed by Newt Gingrich (whose campaign he had worked on in 2012), which eventually led to the highly-coveted endorsement by President Trump.
What the 2018 primary ultimately revealed is that despite the neverending media narrative that Trump is political cyanide for Republicans in California, he is actually more popular than ever among the voters. Cox ultimately came in second, falling just eight percent behind Democratic Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, after an enthusiastic endorsement by Trump. In the U.S. Senate primary, a virtually unknown businessman and veteran named James Bradley came within four points of beating the Democratic State Senate President Kevin de Leon, an outright socialist, while running on a pro-Trump platform akin to Allen’s.
Dying on the Hill of Global Warming
But that hasn’t stopped some in the party leadership from continuing to perpetuate the outright lie that Trump is somehow responsible for the party’s ongoing woes, such as the massive drop in voter registration or its exclusion from both of the two most recent U.S. Senate races.
Never mind that the declining numbers have been a consistent trend since the 1990’s; never mind that the disastrous Proposition 14 that instituted the exclusive top-two primary system was enacted in 2010; and never mind the fact that even Chairman Brulte himself has disputed this notion and called its proponents “revisionist historians.” it’s cheaper and requires less intellectual effort to just blame Trump, and comes with the added bonus of becoming adored by the mainstream media.
More recently, this has manifested itself in some party leaders demanding a shift to the left just to spite Trump, even if this means conceding to the left-wing conspiracy theory of “global warming,” and thus voting for extremely regulatory laws that have disastrous consequences for small business owners and the taxpayers.
This rhetoric came to a head when then Minority Leader of the Assembly Chad Mayes led a handful of turncoat Republicans to vote with the Democrats for legislation that expanded the state’s Schwarzenegger-era global warming program, known as “cap-and-trade,” which included tax hikes and increased regulations.
The backlash was swift, fierce, and effective; over 20 county central committees and the state party’s board all called on Mayes to resign as Minority Leader. Beleaguered by additional accusations of an affair with Kristin Olsen, which eventually led to his divorce, Mayes eventually gave in while still defending his actions as “bipartisanship.”
Mayes nevertheless intended to continue his efforts to “moderate” the party, founding a center-left advocacy group called “New Way California” that paraded Schwarzenegger and Ohio Governor John Kasich as its mascots, despite a rather pitiful turnout at their inaugural summit in March and even more criticism over their elitist attitude. In the primary, two more of Mayes’ cap-and-trade allies were defeated, when Assemblyman Rocky Chavez came in sixth place in his bid for Darrell Issa’s Congressional seat, and Assemblyman Marc Steinorth lost his bid for the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors.
The Final Countdown
The looming party leadership battle, if Travis Allen decides to run for chair, will be the latest major scene in the ongoing act of the California GOP’s decline. It could provide the first chance for a head-on collision between the moderate, “New Way California” mindset of the party leadership, and the increasingly frustrated attitude of the pro-Trump base in the state; it would also be a sort of spillover from the last three gubernatorial primaries, with this race also seeing an eerily similar dynamic of a wealthy, donor-backed moderate against a populist conservative who fires up the base.
But this particular race can be seen as perhaps the best chance for the conservative base to finally make a legitimate stand. The 2018 cycle has proven that the ultra-moderates of yesteryear are almost entirely long gone. Although Allen was definitely the preferable choice for the gubernatorial nomination, Cox is certainly no Kashkari or Whitman, and only managed to gain broader popular support after mostly copying-and-pasting Allen’s campaign platform, which included unequivocal support for President Trump. The top Republican candidate for U.S. Senate ran on a similar pro-Trump platform.
Keep in mind, this comes after the fact that the standard for Californian conservatism has been on a downward spiral for many years. Kashkari in 2014 was the quintessential RINO candidate; but Donnelly had his own fair share of problems, from being arrested with a loaded handgun at an airport, to running his mouth one too many times and eventually accusing Kashkari of supporting Sharia Law (the latter of which was the main reason the establishment worked overtime to defeat Donnelly in the primary).
And the conservative standard-bearer of the 2010 gubernatorial race, Steve Poizner, has already left the Republican Party; he is now running for his old office of Insurance Commissioner again, this time as an independent. He narrowly came in first in the primary, and although the race is hotly contested, he stands a better chance of winning than any of the actual Republican candidates in the other statewide races.
Needless to say, the absolute state of the California GOP has fallen quite far from the days of Governor Ronald Reagan. This is most likely because many of the best conservatives have already left the state, along with the millions of others who have been consistently fleeing California for over a decade since Schwarzenegger took office.
What remains is an out-of-touch party establishment and a fractured conservative base, with the former gradually shrinking and the latter seeming finally capable of uniting behind common causes. Whether it’s the collective power of 20 county parties uniting to oust Chad Mayes, or the base overwhelmingly backing pro-Trump candidates in the 2018 primary, it is clear which side seems to finally be turning the tide against the other.
A Lose-Lose Scenario
But here’s the harsh reality behind this dynamic: Whichever side ultimately emerges victorious, both are more than likely extremely unprepared to take on what awaits the state on the other side of November. Gavin Newsom will most likely win, and the Democrats are increasingly likely to retain their legislative supermajority in the Assembly, and even have a chance to regain their State Senate supermajority as well.
As it stands now, the Democrats in the State Assembly currently hold 55 seats, which is just barely above the 53-seat minimum for a two-thirds supermajority in that chamber. As of the primary, they are now technically operating at a majority of 56, as Rocky Chavez’s seat (District 76) has already essentially flipped blue due to the top two candidates in that primary both being Democrats. At the same time, one more Republican-held seat is in danger, as Marc Steinorth’s seat (District 40) saw a higher overall vote total in the primary for the two Democrats combined (54.3 percent) than for the lone Republican (45.7 percent).
Thus, the Republicans need to make a net gain of at least five seats in order to offset the flip of District 76 and a potential November flip of District 40. And the total number of Assembly seats currently being targeted by the California GOP as potential flips is... five: Specifically, the 32nd, 44th, 60th, 65th, and 66th Districts. They would have to flip every single one just to guarantee the breaking of the Dems’ supermajority. Even though some districts look ready to flip in the Republicans’ favor come November (such as the 32nd and 60th), the chances of flipping all five seats are next to impossible.
At the same time, although the Republicans have successfully broken the Democratic supermajority in the State Senate due to the recall of Josh Newman in the primary, the Democrats need to gain just one seat in order to return to their two-thirds majority of 27 seats. In the primary, one such Senate seat appears to be in danger of flipping back; the 12th District, held by Republican Anthony Cannella (the one and only Republican in the State Senate who voted for the same gas tax hike that got Newman recalled), saw the three Democrats in the primary receive a total of 51.6 percent, while the two Republicans received just 48.5 percent. No other State Senate seat this year is considered competitive for either side, thus leaving the 12th District as the only potential flip.
If that happens and the Democrats regain a complete legislative supermajority, then Governor Newsom will swiftly pass his signature campaign proposal: single-payer healthcare, calculated to bankrupt the state due to costing twice as much as the entire state budget. At that point, whether it’s Chairman Hadley or Chairman Allen, the leader of the California Republican Party had better be prepared for the financial armageddon that will surely follow; one that their superminority party can only watch helplessly and do nothing about.