OPINION

Are Republicans on the Cusp of a Comeback in California?

A surface-level focus on cultural differences misses the political, social, and economic divisions in California—and the opportunity for Republican power.

California is frequently portrayed today as the bluest of blue states. Conventional wisdom (as determined by Washingtonians and the California political establishment) cites demographics and economic factors to conclude, almost reflexively, that the weakest Democratic candidate could defeat the strongest Republican in a statewide contest. The thinking has been that California is a lost cause: the Republicans’ hardline stance on immigration disgusted Latino voters who became fervent supporters of the Dems, and the loss of manufacturing and defense jobs meant that too many Republicans had left the state. Republicans haven’t won a U.S. Senate race in California since 1988, and the last time a Republican won the governorship in California was in 2006, when Arnold Schwarzenegger won re-election.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, California is not and was never an intractably blue state.

It’s been three decades since a non-incumbent Republican was elected governor of California in a regular election: U.S. Senator and former San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson. Wilson, who held office from 1991 to 1999, has figured heavily into narratives explaining why the Golden State became a blue state. That state produced the political careers of prominent Republican figures like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan was said to have made a political transformation following Wilson’s tenure as governor, one that has been attributed to a mounting backlash in the Latino community against Proposition 187. The proposition, championed by Wilson, was a measure that severely curtailed undocumented immigrants’ access to basic services such as healthcare and education.

Still, the 1994 midterm election turned out to be a Republican wave year. Wilson was re-elected, and Republicans took control of the California State Assembly for the first time in decades. Republicans gained three U.S. House seats, Republican Michael Huffington came within two points of defeating Dianne Feinstein for re-election to the Senate, and Proposition 187, popular with the midterm electorate, passed by an overwhelming margin.

And although the GOP victory was short-lived (Democrats took back the Assembly in the subsequent election, and, two years afterward, Democratic candidate Gray Davis was elected Governor of California in 1998), several conservative propositions were passed during these elections—even as Democrats won the elected offices: Proposition 209, which banned affirmative action; Proposition 218, expanding the role of voter approval in local tax levies both succeeded at the ballot box in 1996; Proposition 227, which ended bilingual education in favor of English-only instruction, was passed by the electorate in 1998.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, California is not and was never an intractably blue state. And it just so happens that a campaign against incumbent Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom is likely to lead to a recall election later this year. (Organizers are reporting they have gathered 2.1 million signatures in favor of a recall—only 1.5 million verified signatures are required to qualify.)

Much of the animus behind the 2021 Recall has been attributed to frustration with California’s COVID-19 lockdowns. In December, Newsom was photographed dining indoors with a lobbyist at the upscale French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley, a scene juxtaposed against a viral video expressing the hurt and frustration of restaurant owners in Los Angeles crippled by the outdoor dining ban. But frustration over lockdown policies might not be telling the whole story here. Despite the fact that Latino voters are frequently credited with driving California’s long-term Democratic trend, according to a Probolsky Research poll released in late March, 44.5% of Latino voters support the recall, with 41% opposed. In fact, polling data shows that Latinos are more likely to support the recall of California’s Democratic Governor than any other community.

While much has been made of the overwhelming advantage Democrats have over Republicans in the state, less attention has been paid to the diverging preferences of the various regions of California: the politically dominant Bay Area, the populous Los Angeles area, and the various other metro areas and geographical regions that historically backed Republicans. Today, the out-of-touch legislative decisions made by the Bay Area-focused Democratic political establishment in the past few years could provide an opening for the right Republican candidate—in the mold of Goodwin Knight (1953-1959) or George Deukmejian (1983-1991)—to prevail.

California.

California.

THE HISTORY OF CALIFORNIA REPUBLICANS

The post-World War II era marked a long expansion of California’s economy. Aside from a brief downturn immediately after the war, the Golden State’s economy was largely robust for a variety of reasons. Southern California became the nation’s largest producer of aircraft and the second-largest manufacturer of automobiles, only behind Detroit. Just like today, the Bay Area became known for its tech sector. Los Angeles, which began as an oil-rich boomtown, gained a robust, diversified economy consisting of not only entertainment, but also aerospace, manufacturing, and defense. The “open-shop” labor rules in place throughout the early 20th century helped foster a culture of entrepreneurship and a business-friendly climate in Los Angeles. In 1947, GM opened the Van Nuys Assembly, which would produce many cars, including Chevrolet Camaros and Pontiac Firebirds. One of the most prominent think tanks, the RAND Corporation, was established in Santa Monica by the Douglas Aircraft Company in 1948.

[A] moderate Republican has a path to victory at the ballot box, especially if they are facing a liberal ideologue and the national mood favors the Republicans.

California—in particular Southern California—became a magnet for people across the United States and abroad. Many of the most prominent figures were conservatives from the Midwest who had moved there in the first half of the twentieth century, such as Illinois-born Ronald Reagan and Walt Disney, who grew up in Missouri.

Throughout this period, California was largely governed by Republicans who, despite their shared conservatism, leaned towards an array of political views. Earl Warren, a progressive Republican, ran the state from 1943 to 1953, before becoming Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Warren was succeeded by another Republican, Goodwin Knight of Los Angeles, who governed California between 1953 and 1959. Also during this time, Richard Nixon served as Congressman for California’s 12th congressional district, from 1947 and 1950. (Nixon was later elected to the U.S. Senate in November 1950, and held that position before assuming office as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Vice President in 1953.)

The pendulum swung back-and-forth in California throughout the 1960s and 1970s. During this time period, attitudes about hot-button local and national issues such as the counterculture movement, the Vietnam War, and Watergate during these tumultuous decades galvanized both liberal and conservative voters. In addition, the conflict between moderates and hardliners in both parties played out in primaries-between Democrats in the 1976 Senate race and Republicans in the 1992 Senate race, 2002 gubernatorial contest, and 2010 Senate election.

Still, throughout the Golden State’s recent history, moderate candidates tended to prevail over ideologues, and, according to the Sacramento News & Review, the state’s electorate does not have a clear liberal or conservative preference when it comes to voting on propositions. This history clearly demonstrates that a moderate Republican has a path to victory at the ballot box, especially if they are facing a liberal ideologue and the national mood favors the Republicans.

As its politics went back-and-forth, California experienced consistent population growth in the mid-20th century, expanding 53.3% between 1940 and 1950, and 48.5% between 1950 and 1960. California’s cultural clout also increased throughout the 1950s and 1960s, with various quintessential American touchstones such as the original McDonald’s restaurant and The Walt Disney Company getting their start in SoCal. The expansion continued for decades, and, apart from the two Democratic governors named Edmund G. Brown (senior and junior, “Pat” and “Jerry”), Republicans held the governor’s mansion in California from 1943 to 1999.

California’s economy was more robust than the U.S. overall between 1975 and 1990. After that, a recession hit, which, compounded by the post-Cold War closures of America’s defense industry, put California in a worse position than the country as a whole. It was also during this time that the state’s political tide turned from purple to blue.

California.

California.

A SURFACE-LEVEL FOCUS ON CULTURAL DIFFERENCES

Much of the conversation around California’s transformation in the 1990s and 2000s emphasizes racial divisions. In her 1998 monograph, The Color Bind: California’s Battle to End Affirmative Action, Lydia Chávez cites a Los Angeles Times exit poll in which white men voted for both Pete Wilson and Proposition 187 by the same margin of 63 to 3%. “Wilson had demonstrated with Proposition 187 that California was fertile political ground for racial wedge issues—issues that could split white males away from the Democrats and send them to the Republican Party,” Chávez writes.

The trope of race-determined voting was exacerbated by popular culture.

During a 2019 interview with Pete Wilson marking the 25th anniversary of Proposition 187, LA Times’ Gustavo Arellano positions “people like” himself and his friends and family—“immigrants in the U.S. illegally and their American-born children”—in opposition to Wilson voters, capitalized on race as the primary distinction. That same year, California’s Latino Legislative Caucus released a video “thanking” Wilson for his contributions to California Democrats in the long run, crediting Wilson for creating a “road map about how to fight back against racist, xenophobic policies and an opportunist leader” (a thinly-veiled comparison to then-President Trump).

The trope of race-determined voting was exacerbated by popular culture. The impacts of the defense layoffs and the early 1990s recession in California were depicted in the 1993 film Falling Down. Michael Douglas plays William Foster, a laid-off defense worker known throughout the film by his license plate “D-Fens.” Foster loses his job in the defense industry, sparking his vengeful rampage throughout Los Angeles. A Newsweek cover from March 29th, 1993, featured a picture of the D-Fens character with the headline “White Male Paranoia,” just one of many examples of media focus on the “angry white male” voter in the mid-1990s.

1988 was the last time a Republican presidential candidate won the state of California, and at the federal level, the Golden State remains out of reach for the GOP to this day. And while it’s true that the national Republican party lurched to the right on social issues throughout the mid-1990s, which may have alienated center-right voters in California, and that many conservatives left California throughout the decade and relocated to various locales across the country (most notably northern Idaho), the demographic hypothesis doesn’t tell the whole story. With over 39.3 million residents, California is the most populous state in the Union, and the third-largest by area. It is also a state full of contrasts and contradictions, even at the local level.

While the San Francisco Bay Area is known for being the center of globally-minded Big Tech companies like Google, Apple, and Facebook, and a financial sector with a highly successful venture capital industry, the region is still known for its massive inequality and rampant housing insecurity. California’s Bay Area leaders frequently back climate policies that are lauded by Easterners and the international community, but California also happens to be the seventh-largest crude oil producer and third-largest capacity to refine oil in the entire country.

That contrast was on display at the 2019 California Democratic convention, when building trades unions organized a “Blue Collar Revolution” in opposition to the Green New Deal. Columnist Joel Kotkin, whose writing frequently contrasts Silicon Valley with the rest of California, indicated that the state’s oil and gas industry employs 400,000 workers, while the building trades union membership amounts to another 400,000 people. Democrats who are based in the Central Valley are often favorable to the oil industry as it remains one of the region’s top employers.

Some have compared the plight of Californians in the San Joaquin Valley to the struggles faced by West Virginians with the collapse of coal. Sandwiched between the hyper-affluent Bay Area and populous SoCal, the Central Valley receives little media attention yet is home to some of the most impoverished regions in the nation. According to the most recent census, the metro areas of Fresno, Modesto, and Bakersfield-Delano have some of the highest percentages of residents living below the poverty line.

A rock-solid, populist Republican challenge to the status quo should seek to win over Democratic-leaning voters in this region as well as in Los Angeles and the Inland Empire, both regions that have experienced stagnation after decades of being run by establishment Democratic politicians.

California.

California.

CALIFORNIA 2020: A LITTLE RED WAVE AND YET ANOTHER RECALL CAMPAIGN

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s and continuing through the early 2010s, moderate governors and lawmakers kept the legislators from advancing extreme proposals that hamper both economic opportunities and individual personal freedoms. Since the mid-2010s, however, and particularly in the most recent California legislative session, proposals championed by leftists lobbyists succeeded in becoming law. The California Legislature’s 2019 session resulted in a number of extreme pieces of legislation sailing through the Assembly and Senate and signed by the Governor. One of them, Assembly Bill 5 (AB5), has already had the unintended consequence of prompting layoffs of freelance writers and concerns among truckers operating in the state. Another, a set of laws also passed during this session regarding education, are set to restrict educational opportunities through limits on charter schools.

Proposition 22 clearly showcases SoCal’s capacity to out-vote the San Francisco and Silicon Valley regions.

One must wonder if the California Democratic San Francisco-controlled political establishment operating smoke-filled rooms all across the state will ever be held accountable for its many failures on behalf of its voters. These include a myriad of crises that have gone unaddressed or wildfires caused by forest mismanagement, blackouts caused by idiosyncratic energy policies, a failing K-12 education system that denies a path to upward mobility and success in the adult world, an unresolved homelessness crisis, an out-of-touch state legislature that rubber-stamps unpopular, destructive laws like AB5 and, most recently, a scandal involving mismanagement of approximately $11 billion of the state’s unemployment funds.

Conversely, the 2020 election witnessed a “little red wave” in California: four Republican candidates flipped Democratic-held seats for the first time since 1994. The successful challengers included former Congressman David Valadao of Hanford, Navy veteran Mike Garcia of Santa Clarita, Orange County Supervisor Michelle Park Steel of Seal Beach, and former Assemblymember Young Kim of Fullerton. Republicans also gained an Assembly seat due to a Democratic lockout, with Suzette Martinez Valladares of Santa Clarita taking office. And, of course, little could prepare Golden Staters for a nascent recall campaign now emerging against Bay Area favorite son, Governor Gavin Newsom.

The success of the Proposition 22 campaign in 2020 offers a road map for an ostensible Republican victory in the future. Amid a backlash against AB5 among rideshare drivers, independent artists and creatives, medical translators, truck drivers, and others who felt the law was a major threat to their livelihoods, a ballot initiative supported by “gig-work” companies like Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash sought to exempt app-based drivers from the law. Unions and the Democratic establishment opposed the measure, but they were vastly outspent by the rideshare companies, and Proposition 22 passed by a considerable margin.

The sheer difference in geographic preferences for or against the measure was stark: Proposition 22 was voted down in the Bay Area, while it was favored by voters in SoCal, the Central Valley, and elsewhere. Proposition 22 clearly showcases SoCal’s capacity to out-vote the San Francisco and Silicon Valley regions.

The days of Proposition 187 are over. In the twenty-seven years since the 1994 midterm elections, a whole new crop of issues have emerged as direct or indirect threats to Californians and their livelihoods. Just as Pete Wilson’s support of Proposition 187 may have inspired a generation of Californians to vote Democratic, Gavin Newsom’s lockdowns and one-party rule in Sacramento may animate yet another generation to support Republicans for the first time.

With the uncertainty around the oil and gas industry, the frequent tone-deafness of the Bay Area Democratic establishment to the concerns of others around them, the lockdown crisis, the EDD scandal, wildfires, blackouts, homelessness, crumbling infrastructure, and failing schools, there’s no shortage of issues for challengers in California to run on. Could this be the decade that California goes red?

Editor’s Note: this article was updated on March 30th, 2021, to indicate that The French Laundry is located in Napa Valley, not San Francisco.

Written By:

Robert T. Wood is a researcher, writer, educator, and analyst. He is a graduate of the College of William and Mary with two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Global Studies and Hispanic Studies and a Master of Arts in Latin American Studies from Georgetown University.