A few days ago, Public Policy Polling (one of the most reputable polling companies in the country) tweeted that they were considering polling California for the upcoming 2012 US Senate race between Dianne Feinstein and a Republican challenger. They asked followers for suggestions on who should be tested against Senator Feinstein, besides recent 13-point governor loser Meg Whitman. I thought about it for a second, and replied, “Arnold, Tom Campbell, maybe Abel Maldonado? The Republican Party is beyond dead in California.” Others popular responses were: Steve Poizner, Darrell Issa, Kevin McCarthy, and Steve Cooley. Frankly, if these men collectively make up the cream of California’s GOP crop, my “beyond dead” comment surely isn’t far from reality. There’s absolutely zero chance that a conservative Republican like Darrell Issa can beat any kind of Democrat in this state in the near (and perhaps distant) future. California is a solidly blue state where Democrats hold a substantial registration edge. This was played out in dramatic fashion in the most recent election, where despite a significant nationwide Republican swing, GOP candidates for Governor and Senate lost by double digits, and not one Republican won a statewide office.
So, do more moderate Republicans have a chance statewide in California? In the past, moderates in the GOP haven’t had much luck getting through primaries against more conservative opponents. In the 2010 election for instance, Tom Campbell lost the Senate primary to Carly Fiorina by a whopping 35 points! Would he have had a better chance against Barbara Boxer in the general election? It’s difficult to say whether his more moderate, business-friendly message would have resonated with California voters. (He did lose the 2000 general to Senator Feinstein by 19 points, so his track record isn’t the best.) My other choice (besides Arnold, who said he’s done running and who couldn’t be less popular), Abel Maldonado, also lost his race for Lieutenant Governor by double digits. He seems like a candidate who could do well in this state. He’s young, moderate, and has a good story, as the son of immigrant farm workers who went on to grow his family’s business and become Lieutenant Governor himself. Unfortunately for him, as long as he has an “R” after his name, those main selling points will be counteracted. There could be some hope ahead for moderate Republicans, as California’s new open-primary law will soon take effect. The top two finishers in the primary, regardless of party, will move onto the general election. Supported by voters last November, this could turn out to be one of Arnold’s most significant and longest-lasting victories for fellow moderates. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens.
For now, though, the party of the pachyderms is on the brink of extinction in California. Sure, as recently as 2006, some pundits thought the GOP was gone nationwide, but this was proven wrong in four short years. If we’re just talking about one solidly blue state, however, predictions of a long-term GOP ice age could be much more accurate. The registration edge is more dramatic, and the lack of strong candidates and a cohesive message is astounding. A week ago, a bipartisan group of political observers, lawmakers, and strategists gathered at a UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies symposium and discussed the issue:
Many of the 200 attendees at the two-day conference appeared surprisingly unified on one issue: that, barring dramatic upheaval, the GOP’s prospects may be doomed in the voter-rich Golden State.
“Republicans, as a brand, are dead,” Duf Sundheim, the former state GOP chair, told the gathering Saturday.
“We’ve become an island, a political island unto ourselves,” Thad Kousser, a political analyst from UC San Diego, said of California’s overwhelmingly blue streak in the November election.
Republicans will remain dead in California until the party “decides it won’t be hostile to people who aren’t old and white,” said Darry Sragow, interim director of the USC/Los Angeles Times Poll and a longtime Democratic strategist.
Rick Claussen, a leading GOP strategist, said that unless the grass roots and the state party change tactics – and step back from their current emphasis on conservative social issues – “we’re not going to see a Republican statewide winner in the next decade.”
Tough words for a party struggling to stay relevant in Blue California.
Update: The Public Policy Polling results for the CA-Sen race are out. The title of the report is “No hope for Whitman, Fiorina, Arnold, anyone vs. Feinstein.” Not surprising. Senator Feinstein leads the 6 Republicans tested by between 14-34 points. The 14-point lead is actually against Tom Campbell (my first suggestion!) and the 34-point lead is against Arnold. All 6 Republicans had sub-30 favorability numbers. Yikes!