To any objective observer, the national Republican Party appears to be bent on suicide — a colony of angry white male lemmings headed straight for the cliff. Every decision the party’s leadership makes, every strategy they pursue, seems to be motivated by a singular, urgent need to stoke their voters’ basest fears and inner rage.
But while the GOP base may take glee with the party’s wars on women, African-Americans, Latinos, students, the poor, immigrants, seniors and science, normal Americans, including the independent swingsters who decide elections, are increasingly unnerved by it. Driven by their base, the national GOP is ignoring the swingsters’ concerns and doubling down on efforts to appeal exclusively to teavangelical Fox watchers and Dittoheads.
As Keith Humphreys at The Reality-Based Community noted this week, this is a familiar scenario for Californian Democrats and independents, who have watched with muted astonishment over the post 20 years as the nation’s largest state Republican Party obstinately pursued a similar doubling-down on its angry white base — a strategy that has left the state party fiscally and ideologically bankrupt and shriveled to its lowest voter registration in over a century:
Younger Americans are often surprised to learn that California was a Republican-friendly state for decades. Other than in the 1964 LBJ landslide win over Goldwater, Californians supported a Republican for President every cycle from 1952 through 1988. However, by the early 1990s, the increasing diversity of the state began to alter the political landscape, just as it is doing now nationally.
The debate within the California GOP at the time was eerily similar to that happening within the national Republican Party today. Virtually all Republican leaders conceded that the rise of Latino and Asian-American voters required some response, but what that response should be was the subject of intense disagreement.
California GOP reformers, noting that a Democratic Presidential Candidate (Bill Clinton) had broken the GOP lock on the state in 1992 with strong support from minority voters, argued that the party had to modernize by reaching out to people of color. A different faction, who pointed out that Clinton had captured only 46 percent of the popular vote and that Ross Perot had attracted many conservative white voters, insisted that the Republican party needed to go hard right, including by making race-based appeals to white voters.
The two GOP factions battled each other in the lead-up to the 1994 gubernatorial election and the “double-downers” won. Anti-immigrant ballot Proposition 187 was the central issue of the contest, and like any Californian I can attest to the venomous, racially-divisive nature of the debate that surrounded it. Republican Pete Wilson publicly embraced the measure at every campaign stop, and rode anti-immigrant sentiment to re-election with strong support from White voters.
In the process, Wilson and those who advised him to double-down on white voters did lasting damage to the California Republican Party from which it has never recovered. In the minds of much of the population of this minority-majority state, the GOP is the party of white people who don’t like non-white people, a branding that — fair or not — repulses most minority voters and no small number of white voters as well.
Subsequent Democratic Presidential candidates have not even bothered to campaign in California; why should they?
Just to recap, here’s the current state of the California Republicans Party: Its voter registration has shrunk to around 30 percent, the lowest it has been since the 19th century. California Democrats hold every statewide office from the governor on down — and all these statewide Dems but one won their seats by double digits in 2010, victories that ran counter to the nationwide “red tide” in the midterms. Democrats also hold veto-proof majorities in both houses of the legislature. The California GOP congressional delegation is down to 17 out of 53 seats, and the GOP will likely lose two more seats next year.
The California GOP has no leader. There is no Republican politician in the state who is a viable candidate for office now or in the future who has statewide name recognition today. All the California Republicans who do have statewide name recognition — former Govs. Schwarzenegger and Pete Wilson and failed candidates Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorini — have damaged the party and are considered losers, or worse.
The state party has been fiscally bankrupt for years. It was so broke in 2008 that it could not afford to advertise for Prop 8, an anti-gay ballot measure similar to the ones that 30 or so other state Republican Parties used as wedge issues to help them win seats. As a result, national anti-gay hate groups had to scramble for donations from out of state, a call that Mormons in Utah answered by pouring $20 million into the campaign. But even though Prop 8 passed, the California GOP lost a seat or two in the legislature. More recently, there was a rumor recently that the California GOP was so broke that it couldn’t afford rent and so had to store its files in someone’s garage.
Is this the future of the national GOP? It certainly seems like it, but we can only hope.