The shellacking California Republicans received on November 6 can certainly be attributed to a variety of factors unrelated to the Party’s messaging or political infrastructure. Obviously, the enormous demographic changes that have occurred in the Golden State over the last several decades played an important part in seeing GOP representation in the Assembly, for example, slashed by one-half since the halcyon days of 1994 when the Party briefly seized control of the lower house of the Legislature. As uncontrolled immigration takes its toll and older, conservative white voters flee the state, a Party wedded to those voters will ultimately pay the price of inexorable electoral decline. The massive liberalization of voting rules to even include Election Day “ballot harvesting” also played a part as the Democrats’ formidable union-paid GOTV machine can now overcome Republican leads on Election Night through “late” votes that continue to be counted weeks beyond the day and hour when the polls actually close.
There probably is little that can be done to reverse the demographic transformation of California. Even if a Border Wall is eventually built, the horse has already left the stable and the ironclad Democrat hyper-majority in Sacramento will ensure that its ready supply of Democrat voters-in-waiting across the border will receive their voter registration forms the moment they set foot ( legally or illegally ) on U.S. soil. And, taxpayer-paid health care, housing, and education awaits the party’s new charges as they arrive in the once-Golden State. While Republicans can probably count on as much as 30% of the Latino vote in elections, it is highly questionable how high that number can rise unless the GOP simply abandons its core political principles and moves left to outflank the Democrats in offering more free goodies to the immigrant caravans. Trying to reform the “loosey-goosey” election laws Speaker Paul Ryan referred to is out of the question as Republican numbers in the new Legislature are more appropriate to caucusing in a telephone booth than enacting policy.
So, where does the California Republican Party go now? I have heard various ideas, from blowing up the entire party and starting over to organizing a new political party entirely. These are radical, impractical solutions.
What should happen is to examine the avenues of opportunities that still exist in the state that are somewhat independent of the iron hand of the Democrat Party’s autocratic control as well as addressing the amazingly weak CRP strategy at the grassroots level. In short, a return to Hiram Johnson-style popular democracy and a new focus on city and county political organizing.
With the Legislature and statewide offices out of reach for the foreseeable future, the CRP needs to refocus on initiative, referenda, and recall as the way to short-circuit the Democrats in Sacramento and enact positive public policy. This is what Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann did with Proposition 13 in 1978. This route was used repeatedly throughout the 1980s and 1990s to enact tax and spending limits and criminal justice reforms ( “Three Strikes,” etc. ). And, despite the shrinking pool of reliably red voters, Proposition 6 would have likely passed this year had it not been for Xavier Beccera’s deliberately deceptive ballot language.
The CRP needs to invest resources in a program of initiative qualification and enactment, including legal counsel, signature-gathering campaigns, and successful fundraising. A range of popular issues that could be conceivably passed at the ballot box even in a deeply-blue state should be identified and vetted by the campaign attorneys. In addition to circumventing legislative Democrats, such a strategy could stimulate voter enthusiasm and turnout for our candidates, recruit volunteers, and, at a minimum, advance a serious policy agenda that is sorely lacking. Recall of elected officials should also be on the table, as it is a tool that the CRP has often used successfully in recent decades ( most recently with State Sen. Josh Newman ). Blanket the state with popular initiatives with cross-party appeal and go after legislators who have clearly gone off the deep end.
Even more critical is to return to the grassroots, the cities and counties. Have you ever looked at a political map of California? Is it all blue? Hardly. It is actually mostly red. Most California counties voted for Donald Trump and John Cox. The problem is these are the small, inland, sparsely-populated rural counties. The population-heavy San Francisco, Santa Clara, and Los Angeles regions are, of course, overwhelmingly Democrat. The question arises: Why are we not doing a better job harnessing the strengths we do have at the local level to develop candidates and even promote ballot measures at the city and county level?
Actually, Republicans have done a reasonably good job in recent years at capturing local offices, such as school boards, city councils, mayors, and county supervisors. In the past, we largely ignored these offices and allowed the opposition to build its “farm team.” The beauty of these local offices is that they are officially non-partisan, permitting Republican candidates to downplay their party affiliation and laser in on important city- and county-specific issues that often lack any firm partisan boundaries ( development and growth issues, for example ).
While Republicans have had some success at the down-ballot level, they have failed miserably at using those offices and officeholders to build any kind of effective or long-lasting local political infrastructure. The GOP central committees are largely irrevelant in many counties and the constant infighting usually discourages and drives away promising candidates rather than recruiting them. Most committees are too poorly-funded to offer any candidate more than a smile and a pat on the back; they have no permanent political structure of consultants, field organizers, volunteers, donors, phone banks, voter lists, slates, sign locations, or the other important resources candidates need. They have no field or GOTV operations. In many cases, they even lack a permanent campaign office.
The Democrats are fortunate in that their local political operations are drawn from the unions, public employee and others. The unions have established local political structures and networks that are automatically plugged in to Democrat candidates, giving them a huge advantage in many parts of the state. They have the precinct walkers, doorbell ringers, and phone bank volunteers; we don’t.
The solution? The California Republican Party needs to invest in a dramatic ramp-up of its presence at the city and county level:
- Develop county Republican Resource Centers to provide local candidates with the services and campaign infrastructure needed to wage viable campaigns, from volunteer lists to donor lists, campaign software, precinct maps, and phone bank centers. These resources would be provided at no cost and can be shared among many candidates.
- Start devolving the political consultant community out of Sacramento where it has presided over the complete collapse of Republican congressional and legislative representation in the state over the last two decades. Contract with local Republican consultants who know their regions and have winning track records there
- Use the business community to counter the power of the labor community. Develop relationships with local businesses and employers to create a political infrastructure rivaling what the unions offer the other side. Reach out to the realtors, farm bureaus, grower-shipper associations and other bodies which have members, donors, and facilities. Ever heard of running phone banks from a real estate office or produce sales office instead of a union hall?
- Start focusing on fundraising at the grassroots. Republican fundraising consultants in California are about as rare as Jeff Flake at a MAGA rally. No one is out there raising local money for local candidates. Again, the top-heavy approach of Sacramento PAC fundraisers setting up dinners at Frank Fat’s does nothing to help a candidate running for the Tulare County Board of Supervisors.
- Start building candidate development committees in every county, a body of respected party elders and donors who are plugged in to the business community and can raise money for candidates they identify as promising prospects. Unless we have funded candidates, we lose. It simply isn’t enough to simply have the right philosophy.
In the desolate 2018 political wasteland that is California, the Republican Party is doomed if it continues along the same course it has for years. The top-down strategy of a burned-out political consultant class in Sacramento running the show isn’t working any more. It is said that “all political roads in California lead to Sacramento.” Well, those roads are now blocked to Republicans. For a rebirth of our prospects here, we need to start taking the back roads that run through Paso Robles, Gilroy, Hanford, Manteca, and Modesto. Go local or die!
Andrew Russo is a Republican political consultant based in Hollister, CA. He owns Paramount Communications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 831-595-8914.