California’s Republican Party doesn’t have to be irrelevant, but it likely will remain so for years to come.
That’s because if nothing else, this month’s election returns show that party identification matters a lot, and registered GOP voters are outnumbered in this state 47%-23%, exceeded for the first time by No Party Preference folks, now tallying 24% of registrations.
Even with one state Senate seat and four slots in the Assembly undecided a week after the Nov. 8 vote, Republican legislators could be assured they will have zero influence when it comes to state taxes and other public policy.
That’s because despite having those five seats up in the air, Democrats had already clinched two-thirds majorities in both legislative houses, all that’s needed to levy new taxes, override gubernatorial vetoes and make some proposals effective immediately rather than waiting until year’s end.
Even when statewide Republican candidates are plainly better qualified, non-controversial and win endorsements right and left, they still lose. That’s what happened to the GOP’s well-liked Lanhee Chen, a Stanford University faculty member who lost handily in his run for state controller this fall despite endorsements from every significant newspaper and TV station that bothered making them.
None of this stopped the GOP’s state chair, Jessica Millan Patterson, from sounding like her party won on Election Night. “We’re doing great,” she told a reporter. “Our candidates are doing better than they have in years.”
But the only place the GOP made even slight progress was in Orange County, where redistricting has made some seats easier upset targets than they were as recently as two years ago.
Redistricting is the reason Buena Park’s Soo Yoo was only slightly behind incumbent Democratic Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, a former Fullerton mayor, a few days post-election in a district overlapping the Los Angeles-Orange county line.
It is also why Democratic Rep. Katie Porter was only about 5,000 votes up on former Orange County Republican chairman Scott Baugh at the same moment, and why two-term Democratic Rep. Mike Levin was in a closer-than-expected contest with repeat challenger Brian Maryott in their district covering parts of both San Diego and Orange counties.
The percentages of folks voting Democratic and Republican had not changed significantly since the 2020 vote even in Orange County, but district lines were different.
That led to joy and bragging from the GOP, despite its dismal statewide performance, in which it continued a streak of failing to win even one statewide office since Arnold Schwarzenegger last ran for governor in 2006. That’s 16 years of constant failure.
And yet, Orange County Republican Chairman Fred Whitaker made this statement the day after the vote, a moment when even there, his party had not flipped a single state or federal office: “Orange County Republicans had an incredibly strong showing in last night’s midterm elections … this was a fight we were ready for.”
But for the most part, even in Orange County, where Republicans traditionally need — and used to get — 250,000-vote margins to have a chance at a statewide office, the party did not improve its performance beyond what it was gifted in redistricting.
All of which means California Republicans have work to do if they want to regain relevance. If they want to register more Californians as GOP voters, they could abandon their steadfast opposition to abortion rights, where Proposition 1 passed by a 66%-34% vote this month, adding such rights to the state Constitution.
That percentage is only slightly larger than the proportion by which Democratic registered voters outnumber Republicans. The GOP could change its automatic opposition to any new tax or social benefit program, no matter its purpose.
It’s also time top Republicans like Whitaker and Patterson stop their happy talk after elections where Republicans hold what puny influence they have but gain little or nothing new. If you’re satisfied with losing consistently, and your only gains stem from redistricting, your party will never regain much influence.
Meanwhile, responsible two-party government demands a loyal opposition capable of checking strongly ideological approaches to problems by the majority party.
So far, the California GOP has not come close to becoming even that.
Email Thomas Elias at [email protected].