Beleaguered California GOP Sees Path to 2020 Rebound
CARLSBAD, Calif. -- In the days and weeks after California Republicans suffered staggering losses up and down the ticket last November, the party’s outlook for the future was anything but sunny.
Voter turnout across the state in 2018 set a record for a midterm election, which was not a good sign for the GOP. High voter participation traditionally benefits Democrats, and turnout across the state is all but certain to increase even more in the coming presidential campaign year.
Running as a Republican, especially now in President Trump’s long, overbearing shadow, has never been tougher in California, where two out of three voters either disapprove or downright despise the president.
Combined with the GOP’s anemic voter registration here, which last week slipped to a reported 23.5 percent -- five points behind “no-party preference” -- many state Republicans are preparing for another major blow in 2020.
A month ago, however, state party delegates may have avoided a complete death spiral by electing Jessica Patterson (pictured), an attractive millennial Latina, as the party chair, opting against unrepentant Trump acolytes Travis Allen and Steve Frank. Supporters applauded Patterson’s energetic pledge to unite and reorganize the party, though many still didn’t see a clear path forward.
But then national Democrats and the party’s leftward lurch, led by Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, started lighting the way.
“I am certainly more optimistic today than I was after the election and significantly more so,” said Stephen Puetz, a GOP campaign consultant with Axiom Strategies who previously served as chief of staff to San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, a Republican re-elected in 2016 in the majority Democratic city. “We’re going to take back some of these House seats. I don’t know if we’ll take back six – but we’ll take back some.”
Puetz is fresh off an invigorating campaign win in a special election contest for an Orange County Board of Supervisors seat. Irvine Mayor Don Wagner defeated Loretta Sanchez, a well-known liberal former congresswoman.
The hard-fought victory in the once-Republican stronghold, which has been trending more liberal in recent years, was particularly gratifying for Puetz and other Republicans after Reps. Mimi Walters and Dana Rohrabacher, who have represented the county for decades in the state legislature and Congress, fell to Democratic challengers in November.
“Some California Republicans might have been concerned about the direction of the party [under Trump], but now they have seen the alternative and this push toward socialism – and it scares them, as it should,” Puetz told RealClearPolitics.
California Freshmen Dems Fret Over Socialism Push
Republicans aren’t the only ones recoiling from national Democrats’ far-left turn. Newly elected California House Democrats from traditionally red districts, such as Katie Hill and Harley Rouda, now fear the socialist label could cost them re-election and swing the House majority back to the GOP.
Over the last week, some Democratic House freshmen have started lashing out against their brasher colleagues’ support for socialism, impeachment and the divisive Green New Deal.
Hill, who last November flipped a Los Angeles-area district that Republicans had held for decades, made it clear she’s not jumping on the Ocasio-Cortez bandwagon. “As we run up to this presidential [election], we need to show that Democrats, as a whole, are not socialists,” she told Politico last week. “We’re not pushing for impeachment without serious cause and serious evidence.”
Rouda, a businessman and former Republican who defeated 15-term Rep. Rohrabacher, also distanced himself from his freshman class’s far-left flank.
“I’d like to think that the Republican Party is not run by a bunch of folks that subscribe to be nationalists, like Steve King does,” he said, referring to the Iowa congressman who lost his committee seats after making controversial statements on white supremacy and nationalism. “So while Steve King’s views don’t represent the entire Republican Party, those on the far left of the Democratic Party do not represent the mainstream caucus.”
This open Democratic grousing is music to California GOP operatives’ ears.
“[Speaker Nancy] Pelosi is not in control of her caucus, and she has got to figure out a way to rein in these three complete narcissists,” said Jason Roe, a Southern California-based Republican campaign strategist, referring to Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib and Omar. “Any punishment that Pelosi can mete out is a victory for them. They are disrupters, and if they are being punished for disrupting, it’s exactly what they want. You can’t use traditional levers of power with them.”
Roe is telling his GOP clients running for office in California to “stay away from litigating Trump and start litigating AOC and the left – this is the gift that keeps on giving.”
Murphy: California GOP Must Tack Center-Right
Republicans shouldn’t get too excited about the Democratic clashes playing out on the national stage, according to Mike Murphy, one of the most high-profile and longest-serving GOP political consultants in the country.
Murphy acknowledged that national Democrats are making significant mistakes right now but cautioned that Pelosi still has time to straighten it all out before voters really start paying attention to the 2020 presidential election.
“Politics is very dynamic – and yes, Democrats may be stumbling around right now, but that doesn’t mean they are going to keep doing it and hand Trump the election,” said Murphy, an admitted Never-Trumper who has run more than 20 statewide or national campaigns, including Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential, as well as gubernatorial races for Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Murphy now co-directs the University of Southern California’s Dornsife Center for the Political Future, along with Democratic consultant Bob Shrum.
Republicans in California battlegrounds, he argued in an interview, should stop catering to GOP primary voters and instead distance themselves from Trump and tack to the center-right.
“[The party] needs to recruit younger candidates who look a lot more like Californians – Latinos and Asians – and become a brand known for kitchen-table economic issues that are attractive to small-business owners, where a lot of the jobs are created,” he told RealClearPolitics. “We need to be perceived as the party who has remedies for that – we need to get out of the issues surrounding hypersensitivity to immigration and [promoting] nativism and hostility” that’s perceived by the gay community and others.
“We need to align the message to be center-right, not totally responding to the cult of Trump, which resonates more with the primary voter. Making them happy makes sure you lose statewide,” he added.
Murphy supports Patterson, the newly elected GOP chairwoman, but says she faces a near-impossible task of rebuilding the party with Trump still in office, comparing the California GOP’s future to that of the Democratic Party’s seemingly permanent minority status in Utah.
“I think our best chances are in 2022, because I think [Trump] will lose” the presidential race, he predicted.
New GOP Chairwoman: One-Party Rule Is Failing California Voters
Unsurprisingly, Patterson threads the needle more carefully.
An experienced political operative who worked for former Gov. Schwarzenegger, 2010 gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman and 2008 presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani, Patterson has set up extensive statewide political networks and worked closely with party donors. For the past few years she’s served as executive director of California Trailblazers, an organization that trains Republican candidates.
Patterson, 38, knows those candidates must reflect their districts to have any chance of winning. Indeed, the political makeup of GOP-leaning districts varies wildly throughout the state, from pro-Trump eastern San Diego County and parts of the Central Valley, to northern Los Angeles stretching into Ventura County where Latinos make up nearly 40 percent of the population and voters chose Hillary Clinton over Trump, 50 percent to 44 percent.
“I was always the person in the race that was talking about uniting the party – I didn’t try to break the party into factions,” Patterson said. “We are all Republicans, and I would rather focus on the 90 percent of things we can agree on than the things that we don’t. So I will always be about addition, not subtraction, and growing and engaging more people.”
While Patterson is the first woman to run the state GOP, she doesn’t play the gender card even while stressing that her top priority will be broadening the party’s appeal beyond its base.
“Being a woman is just kind of a bonus,” she said.
During a lengthy interview, Patterson wasn’t critical of Trump but she also clearly didn’t want to tie the party too closely to him. She quickly deflected when asked if she supports the president’s signature campaign promise to build a border wall.
“I support border security,” said Patterson, whose paternal grandfather was born in Mexico. “Republicans and Democrats in Washington are going to have to get to an agreement on what they think that looks like.”
Pressed further, specifically regarding Trump’s declaration of a national emergency in order to fund the barrier, she said, “That’s something for the people in Washington, D.C., to hash out.”
As to whether the California GOP is going to campaign for the president’s re-election, she said Trump will be focused on winning swing states, not California, leaving Golden State Republicans to run highly localized races.
“The issues that are affecting Californians the most aren’t coming out of Washington, D.C. – they are the silly things that are coming out Sacramento … that will make your life less affordable and your schools worse and worse.”
California has the second highest gasoline tax in the nation; home prices are high because environmental and other regulatory red tape is stifling construction; groceries are more expensive than they would otherwise be because the state has over-regulated farming and the high gas taxes lead to higher transportation costs, she argued.
“Instead of fixing those problems, the Democrats are focused on plastic straws, reusable cups and plastic [grocery] bags,” she said. “When our education system has fallen to 47th in the nation, something is wrong. When we are the poverty capital of the entire country, something is wrong. What [Democrats] are doing is not working.”
Patterson went on to cite a February survey by Edelman Intelligence showing that 53 percent of all of Californians and 63 percent of millennials in the state think they’re going to have to leave because the state has become unaffordable.
“This has all happened under one-party rule in California,” she said.
Instead of banking on the socialist label to help flip seats back into Republicans hands, Patterson said the party is committed to building the infrastructure and outreach needed to compete for independents.
Still, she noted, federal Democratic lawmakers who have supported their Sacramento colleagues’ tax-and-spend policies for years can’t suddenly start casting themselves as sensible centrists.
“The opportunity for local Republican candidates to contrast their value and vision with Democrats is how we will regain seats and our standing,” Patterson said. “The good news is that Democrats in California and across the nation are singing from the same songbook, and they’re out of tune with middle-class families.”
“While they continue to take Californians for granted, we’ll be working overtime to earn their confidence,” she pledged.