California Republicans struggle to find path to legislative relevance

by Jeremy B. White, POLITICO

California Republicans arrived in Sacramento at their lowest point in history after a disastrous 2018 election.

It’s only gotten worse.

Two Republican state lawmakers have since defected from the party, while a third is fighting a challenge from party activists. And it’s been nearly a decade since California had a statewide elected Republican — then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger famously warned in 2007 that the party was “dying at the box office.”

As GOP elected officials have dwindled to an endangered species in Sacramento, where a Democratic supermajority controls the Legislature, some have tried to stave off irrelevance by adapting to the new political geography. But efforts to moderate views or disavow President Donald Trump have largely gone nowhere.

The small Republican caucuses increasingly consist of the most conservative lawmakers. Republican state lawmakers have virtually no leverage after voters in 2010 reduced the state budget threshold from two-thirds to a majority vote, cutting the GOP out of most meaningful conversations. By October last year, Republicans fell to third place in voter registration, well behind Democrats and independents.

Party insiders warn those woes could foretell trouble ahead for the national party as the electorate becomes evermore diverse. The routes California Republicans have taken, and the party’s reaction, illustrate the precarious position the party occupies.

First came the apostasy of Assemblyman Brian Maienschein (D-San Diego), who flipped parties just weeks after narrowly winning reelection in 2018 as a Republican. Months later, Assemblyman Chad Mayes (I-Yucca Valley) — an ousted former party leader — joined the growing ranks of no-party-preference voters, drawing an immediate challenge from the California Republican Party.

Some Republican incumbents not only have to worry about Democrats, but also their own party rivals. Assemblyman Tyler Diep (R-Westminster) is fending off a conservative challenger backed by local Republicans who believe Diep has sold out the party’s values.

To Republicans, Maienschein is a lost cause — an opportunist who betrayed voters to keep his seat. But the divergent reactions to Mayes and Diep speak to an underlying tension between pragmatism and party loyalty.

From GOP leader to independent

Mayes had long tried to charter a more centrist course. As Assembly Republican leader, he tried to confront poverty — an issue he believed the party had neglected — then marshaled Republican votes to extend California’s cap-and-trade program.

He was promptly deposed.

Mayes had since become one of the few California Republicans willing to publicly assail Trump, who is broadly toxic in California but remains popular within the California Republican Party’s base. Mayes explained his decision to leave the party by saying they have “failed to modernize” and to meet “Californians where they were at,” faulting intensified tribalism that entails clinging to “the national brand” under Trump, despite its failures.

In a December interview, Mayes argued that his focus was on “having a seat at the table to work on policies and make lives better.” He noted that whatever the letters next to his name, his voting record puts him to the right of some Republican incumbents.

That argument does not sway Republican officials who swiftly yanked their endorsement of Mayes and selected and funded a challenger, San Jacinto Councilman Andrew Kotyuk, who has since received money from the state party and Republican leaders.

“As Republican Leader, my job is to elect Republicans, and unfortunately Chad made the decision to not be a Republican anymore,” Assembly Minority Leader Marie Waldron said in a statement.

Even if the party has renounced Mayes, he retains ample support from a cross-section of interest groups — including insurers and agricultural groups — who appear happy to have him casting votes in Sacramento.

Not Republican enough?

Elsewhere, the once-Republican stronghold of Orange County is now majority Democratic and lacks a single Republican in its House delegation.

Against that backdrop, Diep survived the 2018 election in a district with a slender GOP advantage, but his actions since then may cost him. Like Mayes, he has publicly questioned Trump over potential deportations of Vietnamese-Americans — a major bloc in his district. More galling to conservative activists, he cast the sole Republican vote for organized labor’s priority bill restricting the gig economy and for a sentencing reform measure opposed by law enforcement.

The last straw came when Diep testified at an Anaheim City Council meeting in favor of a project labor agreement, using language — he accused Republicans of trying to “demonize the working people” — that, for conservatives, cemented his unholy alliance with unions who steadfastly support Democrats in California.

Soon after that speech, former state Sen. Janet Nguyen launched a challenge to Diep with the backing of Orange County Republican activists, seeking to return to the Legislature after losing her swing seat to a Democrat in 2018. The Orange County Republican Party pulled its endorsement of Diep, and a former Senate Republican leader has backed Nguyen.

“I was called at the very last minute by Republican leaders and community leaders who basically felt they had been betrayed by Mr. Diep, his betrayal not only to them but to the party,” Nguyen told POLITICO. “When he ran in 2018, he ran that he is going to uphold conservative values, he is going to uphold Republican values. Instead, when he got to Sacramento, one bill after another, he would vote in lockstep with the Democratic majority agenda.”

While voting analyses suggest Mayes has a more conservative record than Diep, the state party is rallying around Diep. Waldron told POLITICO that she is “not a fan of purity tests,” and while she said he “absolutely” made a bad vote on AB 5, “he knew what he was doing when he made that vote and decided that the benefits outweighed the risks.”

“The Republican Party doesn’t have the time or resources to waste on fighting each other,” Assemblyman Heath Flora (R-Ripon), who has contributed money to Diep, said in a statement to POLITICO. He called the race “one of the worst examples of Republican primaries in the state.”

Rewards for tacking to the middle

A coalition of health care industry and real estate interests is spending money to defend Diep. So, too, is organized labor — a development that underscores the potential rewards for tacking to the center.

“What we feel is the way out of the situation the Republican Party finds itself in today is through paths that members like Chad Mayes and Tyler Diep have outlined — who are more moderate and can take on the establishment who has lost touch with working class issues in California,” said Cesar Diaz, a lobbyist for a construction industry union umbrella group.

The flow of money reflects a disconnect between Sacramento dynamics and the voters and activists in members’ districts. Even as Mayes and Diep have lost the confidence of core supporters, their willingness to depart from the party line has helped shore up their support among the interest groups that fund campaigns and work doggedly to sway bills. Money can’t replace votes, but it can help swing an election.

But that strategic centrism is exactly what has angered Republicans in Diep’s backyard, who say the clash between him and Nguyen is about what it means to be a Republican.

Former Assemblyman Matthew Harper, who advanced the Orange County GOP resolution to strip Diep of his endorsement, cited a need to stop business migration towardsympathetic Democrats rather than Republicans. Harper cited the example of a Republican lawmaker who found common ground with labor, leading to a rare labor endorsement for a Republican incumbent, only to ultimately lose his seat to a Democrat like other centrist Republicans.

“People think they’ve figured out this clever way to maybe get the Democrats off their back by basically capitulating to labor,” Harper said, but “these kinds of votes, they undercut what it means to be a Republican, and it usually ends up with them not being in the Legislature.”

He may have eschewed those kinds of votes, but Harper is no longer in the Legislature. He lost his Orange County seat to a Democrat in 2018 — the type of defeat that would have been unheard of in an earlier era.

One ousted moderate Republican from the San Francisco Bay Area, former Assemblywoman Catharine Baker, said “hyper-partisanship and a hyper demand of loyalty” has increasingly set the tone within both parties, pointing to a Democrat challenging centrist state Sen. Steve Glazer (D-Orinda). Baker repeatedly voted with Democrats on some contentious bills — and while she didn’t face a Republican challenge, she was unable to repel a well-funded Democrat during the 2018 wave.

That made Baker the last Bay Area Republican lawmaker.

“If someone goes against their party, particularly if you’re a Republican who goes against your party, it’s not like there’s many Democrats and center-left independents who are going to support you,” Baker said. “I think the real test in this climate is going to be how much people who are clamoring for independent thinking among their elected officials are willing to reward it with their vote across party lines. That’s the test: not a like or a post on social media.”

The tug of war is not new for California Republicans, whose leaders have pleaded with them for years to pivot as their grasp on power slipped. In 2007, Schwarzenegger warned Republicans at a state convention, mostly attended by the conservative base, that voters “will look elsewhere” if the party did not change.

After the 2018 midterm wipeout, outgoing California Republican Party Chairman Jim Brulte warned that continued failure to attract nonwhite voters would spell disaster in California and nationally.

Frustrated California conservatives say little has changed. The mounting tally of losses has led Mike Madrid, a former California Republican Party official and a vocal never-Trumper, to urge a new approach. He argued the party is “holding onto 1980 solutions” and ostracizing members who moderate in an effort to “influence the policy process even in a minor way.”

“Chad was certainly trying to lead in a different direction. I think Tyler is just trying to reflect the realities of California,” Madrid said. “In both instances, there’s very little appetite among a shrinking base to evolve and adapt into a new century.”

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