What Went Wrong for GOP in California?

What Went Wrong for GOP in California?

By Michael Rosen - November 12, 2010

While Republicans across the land rejoiced on Election Night after capturing the House, winning a majority of governorships, and retaking at least six Senate seats, Golden State GOPers confronted a grim, unforgiving, intractable Democratic landscape.

Onetime California governor Jerry Brown, a liberal Democrat, won another term in Sacramento after pounding Republican Meg Whitman, a former eBay CEO, by 13 points. Sen. Barbara Boxer returned to Washington for another six years by topping Republican Carly Fiorina, a former Hewlett-Packard CEO, by 10 points. In total, Democrats collected seven out of eight statewide posts while maintaining their legislative near-supermajorities.

So what went right for California Dems, and what went so badly wrong for the GOP in the Golden State? How did Californians elect a 72-year-old retread governor and re-elect a sharply unpopular senator? The answers lie in a combination of seemingly immutable Democrat-friendly terrain and shrewd campaigns by both Brown and Boxer.

First, California has for the past two decades grown steadily bluer, awarding its 50-plus electoral votes to every Democratic presidential candidate since Michael Dukakis. Its outsized congressional delegation comprises 34 Democrats and only 19 Republicans.

Moreover, Democrats currently hold a 44%-31% edge in voter registration, a gap that has grown by five points since 2006. While the state GOP recently made inroads into this registration deficit, the fissure has stubbornly resisted Republican efforts to close it.

According to one "vicious cycle" theory, with every successive Republican defeat, and subsequent increase in the tax and regulatory burden, yet more Republicans abandon the state for business-friendlier climates in Arizona, Nevada, and even Texas. In any event, the climate in California is distinctly inhospitable to Republican candidates, even in banner years like 2010.

Second, Brown's campaign brilliantly tapped into incumbent fatigue and nostalgia to defeat Whitman, who lavished nearly $150 million of her own money on the race-funds offset by an expensive labor union campaign waged on Brown's behalf.

With respect to incumbency, it's easy to forget that Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Golden State's current governor, is a Republican, and Brown slickly fused the wildly unpopular Governator with Whitman, his would-be successor from the same party. One shrewd ad blanketing the airwaves in the final days seamlessly linked Arnold's now-risible calls to "build a new California" and "run the state like a business" with identical statements by Whitman.

But Brown also mined Californians' fond recollections of days gone by, including when Brown himself resided in the governor's mansion and the state's fiscal and employment woes hadn't yet begun to materialize. In one stinging ad, Brown showed Whitman telling a campaign crowd that "30 years ago anything was possible in this state"-precisely when Brown held the governorship.

Never mind that Brown presided over a California budget and economy turned around by his predecessor, Ronald Reagan; impeded key tax reduction measures like Proposition 13; and later acknowledged that his tenure was "all a lie" and that "I didn't have a plan for California." Any Mad Men fan appreciates the power of nostalgia, and Brown promised and embodied-however improbably-a return to California's golden age.

Third, despite a 42-49 job approval deficit, Boxer managed to focus her campaign as much on Fiorina and her shortcomings as on the senator herself.

Boxer exploited the thousands of layoffs Fiorina ordered while at HP to adroitly paint her as a job killer, not creator; this jiu-jitsu largely neutralized Fiorina's otherwise potent attack on the senator as indifferent to the crumbling California economy.

Boxer's campaign also focused attention on Fiorina's social conservatism in an election that should have concerned only fiscal and economic issues. And it didn't hurt that Boxer depleted her considerable war-chest to outspend Fiorina by $8 million.

To be sure, there were a few bright spots for Republicans on Tuesday. Steve Cooley, the law-and-order District Attorney of Los Angeles County, narrowly led Kamala Harris, the liberal San Francisco DA, to succeed Brown as Attorney General.

Republican House candidates appeared poised to oust two Democratic incumbents while holding all of their own vulnerable seats.

And two successful statewide ballot measures-one requiring a two-thirds vote of the legislature to raise fees, another handing control of congressional redistricting to an independent commission-should furnish the beleaguered Republican minority in the legislature some added room to maneuver.

Still, for the most part, these achievements amounted to little more than noise drowned out by the strong signal emitted by the 2010 results in California: robust Democratic fundamentals coupled to clever campaigns spelled doom for statewide Republican candidates, even in a solid GOP year. Until the party of Reagan figures out how to unlock this combination, it can expect more of the same.

Michael M. Rosen is an attorney and a Republican activist in San Diego.  Reach him at

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