The Republican Party in California continues its long, slow slide

TEN years ago, Arnold Schwarzenegger made a speech at the California Republican Party’s convention that silenced the crowd. “Our party has lost the middle and we will not regain true political power in California until we get it back,” Mr Schwarzenegger, then the state’s governor, warned. “In movie terms, we are dying at the box office. We are not filling the seats.”

Back then, Republican registration in California had been falling for a decade. Nonetheless, Chad Mayes (pictured), until recently the Republican assembly leader, recalls being sceptical of the Terminator’s message. “Dying at the box office? Oh come on,” he recalls thinking to himself at the time. “Things ebb and flow.” Today, Mr Mayes looks back on the message as prophetic.

As of February 2017, just 25.9% of Californian voters were registered with the Grand Old Party—the lowest level since the 1980s and nearly 20 points less than the share of Golden State residents registered as Democrats. There are nearly as many Californians who express “no party preference” as there are Republicans. Republicans hold less than one third of seats in the state assembly and state senate and have not won state-wide office since Mr Schwarzenegger’s re-election in 2006. Asked to characterise the condition of the party in the state, Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a senior fellow at the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California, quips that it is “in the iron lung ward of the hospital.”

California was once just as red as it is now blue. Republican candidates won the state in all but one presidential election held between 1952 and 1988, when Californians voted for Lyndon Johnson over the radical populist Barry Goldwater. The California Republican Party produced two American presidents: Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. But starting in 1992 with the election of Bill Clinton, Californians began leaning Democratic and have not supported a Republican for president since. 

Demographic changes have played a big part in this: by 2014 Hispanics surpassed whites as California’s largest ethnic group. They became less likely to consider voting Republican after 1994, when the state’s Republican governor, Pete Wilson, championed Proposition 187, a ballot initiative aimed at eliminating public benefits for undocumented immigrants. Darry Sragow, a long-time Democratic strategist, says the measure, known as the Save our State (SOS) initiative: “scared the living daylights out of anyone who was brown.” Today, research by the Public Policy Institute of California suggests that 63% of California’s Hispanic likely voters are registered as Democrats; 16% are registered Republicans. Over half of Asians are registered Democrats while 15% are registered Republicans. Whites in the state are split equally between the two parties. 

California Republicans’ stance on immigration has softened since Mr Wilson’s era: several of California’s leading Republicans urged Donald Trump to continue the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programme before he announced he would end it. But the party has done little else to adapt to the new reality of the state. While Californians’ views on issues such as gay marriage have grown more liberal and alarm about climate change has deepened, the official Republican positions have remained entrenched. Its platform reads: “We support the two parent family as the best environment for raising children, and therefore believe that it is important to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman.” Mr Mayes chalks this up to the party’s longtime minority status. “Republicans have started to think their whole job is just to oppose to other side…Just obstruct, obstruct, scream into your bullhorns.”  

Last month, straying from the Republican Party line on the environment cost Mr Mayes his job as leader of the assembly Republicans. In July, he supported a bill to extend California’s cap-and-trade programme to 2030 along with seven other Republican legislators. Though polling suggests 56% of Californian adults approved the legislation, which sets a limit on how much carbon individual companies can emit and allows businesses that pollute less than the cap to trade their excess allowance to groups that pollute more, many Republicans were livid. Some of his Republican colleagues slammed Mr Mayes for handing a victory to the state’s Democratic governor, Jerry Brown, who had fought for the bill. On August 24th Mr Mayes was replaced by Brian Dahle, an assemblyman from one of the most conservative parts of California. 

Shortly after Mr Mayes stepped down as leader Mr Schwarzenegger appeared at a fundraiser for his assembly re-election via Facetime, a video chatting application. From a big screen, the actor-turned-politician who also flouted party orthodoxy to vote for cap-and-trade legislation during his tenure boomed: “You are the future of the party.” But unless Mr Mayes’s colleagues recognise the need to balance ideology with pragmatism, the party in California seems doomed. 

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