The California Republican Party has been on a downward spiral for 20 years now. There are young adults starting their first full-time job or entering college who have been born and raised in a state known only as a Democratic stronghold, barely reminiscent as the birthplace of the political careers of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
To survive, Republicans must change.
“Republicans are unable to say, ‘We want to change this.’ Republicans have a sociological problem. They are dominated by upper-middle class whites who are fairly isolated by ethnic minorities. I just think they live in an older California and have not been able to adjust to the new California,” said Joel Kotkin, a demographic writer and Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University.
Most Republican legislators don’t have to face many minority voters at the ballot box. The Citizen’s Redistricting Commission drew districts to place most minorities in the same district in order to follow the Voting Rights Act and give historically disenfranchised groups the ability to elect their own representatives. This concentrated many minorities, specifically Latinos and African-Americans, in the same districts that are largely Democratic where the GOP has little chance of winning and, more importantly, shown little interest in communicating with voters.
In the last 20 years, Republican successes have been minor, although there were two major political successes: The 2003 recall of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and the election that year of Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger.
In 1994, a watershed year for the GOP led by Newt Gingrich’s “Republican Revolution,” California reelected pro-choice GOP Governor Pete Wilson on the backs of Proposition 187, a ballot initiative targeting Latinos and illegal immigration. In Texas that same year, Republican gubernatorial candidate George W. Bush rejected the tenets of Proposition 187 and was able to garner much more support among Latinos.
And while California Republicans captured most statewide offices in 1994, they lost most of them four years later and they were never able to take control of the Legislature or Congressional delegations. From there it has been mostly a downward spiral, where the Republicans lost statewide offices, Congressional and Legislative seats. In 2002, another strong Republican year nationally, the California GOP was able to pick-up two seats in southern California with two minority women, Bonnie Garcia and Shirley Horton, but those seats quickly became Democratic when those women were termed out.
It’s not that California Republicans are fleeing the Republican Party to become Democrats. Rather, people are fleeing both parties to become decline-to-state voters, who now comprise nearly a fifth of the electorate. But it’s a process that, so far, hurts the GOP more than Democrats, who enjoy a 14-point registration edge.
“The historic base of the Republican Party has been shrinking and there is a Latino and Asian population that could be future Reagan Democrats, but Republicans have no way of communicating with them. Wilson made a calculated decision, which worked brilliantly in 1994 and it hurt the party ever since,” said Kotkin. “It can‘t be the same vision of Reagan because we live in different times. I think they can be the party of economic growth, middle class empowerment and support single family homeownership in California. I think they have a geographic opportunity in inland California.”
The GOP has had some solid success in picking up rural Latino districts in the San Joaquin Valley, notably with Jeff Denham, Anthony Cannella and David Valadao, but Democrats are always looking at a chance to take these districts back, which Rudy Salas successfully did in a Kern-Kings Counties Assembly district. In the last election Republicans suffered significant losses in portions of Inland California, specifically in the Inland Empire and Sacramento suburbs. Riverside County which had almost no Democratic representation in Sacramento or Washington, now has two Assemblymen, one State Senator and two Congressmen.
Jim Brulte, who led the GOP in both houses of the Legislature, is the new chair of the California Republican Party. He has been pushing a message of change, specifically to attract minorities to the Republican Party. But change doesn’t come easy especially to a party that decades ago was quite successful. The only question that remains is how many losses must the GOP endure before it develops policies and messages that are part of core Republican principles and attractive to the California electorate?
“The base of the party is conservative, it’s white and it’s male and parties change when they get tired of losing elections, and evidently Republicans are not tired enough of losing elections,” Brulte said on KCET following the November election. “We have to figure out how to talk to them in a language, not one that we’re necessarily comfortable with, but one, that they’re comfortable with. And Republicans have not yet figured out how to do that.”
Ruben Barrales, president of Grow Elect and a former San Mateo County Supervisor, sometimes sees a schism in the Republican Party.
“People have different reasons for being involved in the political process, for some ideology is most important and for others actually having the opportunity to govern is important,” said Barrales. “And for those Republicans that are serious about governing and getting California back on track for fiscal responsibility and educational opportunities and private sector job creation those Republicans are tired to losing elections in California.”
Barrales believes that Republicans must develop their messages better and communicate it to voters so they can better understand what their sound bites stand for. “A lot of it is related to tone. I am not talking about Republicans changing their principles. We’re talking about having a more effective messenger and talking about issues in a way ordinary voters can relate to. Lower taxes is a statement in the Republican Party, but if you go into the Latino community as that as your heading, that is a missed opportunity they can relate to. You have to talk to about education reform to help Latinos to succeed in California and lower taxes that help Latinos in small businesses and create jobs.”
Marcelino Valdez, a Regional Vice Chair of the California Republican Party says the Republicans have been unsuccessful in communicating their message because Republicans speak to everyone about opportunity and don’t like to single out any specific ethnic group. “I don’t think we are supposed to be doing things to help any ethnicity. We need to look at what we are doing for our region, what are we doing to improve our schools? We should not have any elected officials pander to any one interest. Why should the needs be any different for a Hispanic family than it is for a German family?”
Brulte wants the party to improve fundraising, grassroots involvement and candidate recruitment so the party can field candidates that reflect California’s communities. “This is real simple, but it gets lost on some people. In a neighborhood election, the candidate who most looks like, sounds like, has the shared values and the shared experiences of the majority of the people in the neighborhood tends to win,” said Brulte in January at a San Diego County Republican meeting. “And the neighborhoods of California are changing. And to have a strong vibrant two party system in this state we have to go into every neighborhood in California and recruit candidates from every neighborhood.”
Ron Nehring, former Chairman of the California Republican Party agrees that Republicans need to talk about principals they are for and how they benefit minorities. “These outreach programs, these have been done for thirty years and they haven’t done anything. The party is not defined by outreach; it is defined by the words and actions of elected officials. You need to define yourself for what you are for and your opponents are against. Our opponents know this all too well and run around with it, anti-woman, anti-labor and anti-immigration,” said Nehring “If you were to wake up a Republican official in the middle of the night and you asked him what is your stance on illegal immigration and they would immediately say we are against illegal immigration.”
Members of the California GOP are working aggressively to learn how to communicate with the changing faces of the California electorate. Following the devastating losses in the November election, a number of California Latino Republicans have created organizations that will provide the research, fundraising and messaging necessary to reach out to Latino communities statewide. Barrales’ Grow Elect, Escucha (to listen), headed by Assemblyman Rocky Chavez (Oceanside); and Latino Edge, a polling firm, headed by former California Republican Party Communications Director Hector Barajas and pollster John Nienstedt.
Chavez’s group is currently preforming research in different Latino communities around the state and will release a paper on the findings. Chavez says the Democratic Party is taking advantage of the Latino vote and the Republican Party has veered off course and needs to talk to Latinos about issues that are important to them. Chavez said he sat down with the National Council of La Raza, the largest Latino civil rights and advocacy organization in the country and his issues, as a Republican were the same issues that were important to them.
“I’ve met with the National Council of La Raza and in talking to that group and interacting with them I presented the issues of the value of education, safe communities, making sure kids have good food and water and talking about the environment and this resonated with the National Council of La Raza,” said Chavez.
But Chavez feels the Republican Party has gotten too Libertarian and the issues that are important to Latinos are not what Republicans are known for. “If I was to go into the community and ask what the Republican Party is, I would hear the Republican Party is no taxes, small government, individualism, free markets. My point is that I think people regardless of ethnicity, support individuality, and there is a role for government and the most important issues are education and community safety.”
In the past campaigns Republicans have tried to seize the minority vote on social issues, such as abortion and gay marriage because of their strong religious affiliations, but according to a recent poll of Latino voters in 10 competitive California Congressional Districts the findings show not all Latinos agree on this issue and other issues that are more important. The poll was conducted by Moore Information, a Republican polling firm, in conjunction with Grow Elect, from April 2-4, 2013.
The results show that a majority of Latinos are concerned with quality of life issues and issues that affect their family. A majority of Latinos also support low taxes, but that was that was of least importance to them. When asked about some of these specific issues, the most important is making college affordable, increasing job training and incentives for employers that hire more workers and the least important is allowing people to keep more the money they earn. Interestingly, when respondents were given a choice between a candidate that supports gay marriage and abortion rights or a candidate that opposes gay marriage and abortion, except in the cases of rape, incest and a mother’s life, respondents were evenly divided.
As the California Republican Party moves forward they have huge mountain to climb to try to acquire the trust of minority voters and in the Spanish speaking community it starts with talking.
“It’s really tough to find Republicans, who are Latino, bilingual, and are not afraid of the TV. It’s one thing to speak Spanish, it’s another to do it in front a camera,” Valdez said.
Ed’s Note: Nik Bonovich, a political writer and researcher who has written for The Target Book, is a regular contributor to Capitol Weekly.