It's a one-sided affair in the Golden State
In 49 states, 2010 was a great year to be a Republican. California, however, was a different story.
Despite the crimson tide that swept over the rest of the nation in the wave year that handed control of the House of Representatives and so many state houses to the Republican Party, Democrats in California increased the holdings. Former governor and then-Attorney General Jerry Brown defeated business executive Meg Whitman, who spent $140 million of her own fortune only to lose by around 14 points. Democrats completed a sweep of every other statewide office, defended every single congressional and state Senate seat, and even expanded their majority in the Assembly by two seats.
And as bad as 2010 was compared to national expectations, 2012 was downright catastrophic. The turnout effects of the presidential election cycle combined with the effects of redistricting to flip four of California's House seats to Democrats and deliver supermajorities in both chambers of the state legislature. Voters also approved key Democratic priorities on the statewide ballot: raising taxes to restore funding to education, and eliminating the absurd supermajority requirement that had prevented Democrats in Sacramento from passing a budget without minority Republicans taking it hostage. These measures have not only improved the state's economy, but made it actually possible to govern the state in a competent fashion—further damaging the ability of Republicans to claim that Democratic rule has failed the state.
And now, here we are in 2014. And if the massive amount of ongoing infighting is any indication, the California Republican Party still hasn't hit rock bottom.
Even if the California Republican Party were a competent organization when left to its own devices, it still faces massive problems in the broader political context. The xenophobic, misogynistic, and anti-environment bent of the national Republican Party is a significant albatross around the necks of the locals, even those who are not as extreme as the tea party members of the House who are currently giving the party as a whole the reputation it deserves. Former California Republican Party Chairman Ron Nehring has even penned an open letter to his colleagues at the RNC, urging them to do something about the party's reputation of being hostile to women and especially to the immigrants who are making up an increasing percentage of the California electorate and who tend to vote overwhelmingly Democratic.
In July 2013, Iowa Republican Steve King said this in opposition to legislation that would allow children who came here illegally to apply for citizenship: “For everyone who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there that, they weigh 130 pounds and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.”
Now, for King, whose state has a tiny Latino population (just 5.3 percent in the 2010 census), there’s little price to be paid at the next election for such comments because, for him, the Republican Party doesn’t have a problem with Latino voters. He doesn’t personally need them for his own re-election.
However, when those words receive national attention, especially in Spanish-language media such as Univision and Telemundo, they serve to define the Republican Party – and not in a way that does any members of his party in the Southwest any favors. In fact, such comments move many Latinos more firmly into the Democratic camp.
Can you imagine if the chairman of the Democratic Party in the most populous state in the nation wrote an open letter saying that the policies of the White House and Harry Reid were a drag on the local ticket and urging them to be more conservative in their policy approaches? Politico and its ilk would be orgasmically writing every single "Dems in disarray" story that could possibly ever exist. Intra-party Republican dissatisfaction, however, appears to receive slightly more lenience.
But even more egregiously, the California Republican Party cannot even produce a field of viable candidates who support each other for the offices they are seeking. The recent lack of Republican success at the municipal and legislative levels has produced a dearth of serious contenders for statewide office: the top of the Republican ticket featured a primary battle between arch-conservative Assembly member Tim Donnelly, perhaps best known for being arrested in an attempt to bring loaded firearms aboard an airplane, and Neel Kashkari, who has never held elected office and managed the bank bailout program under both Presidents Bush and Obama. The only statewide candidate on the Republican side who could possibly justify a moniker of rising star is Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, who running for controller. Current polling, however, does not give her or any other candidate much of a chance at all against the Democratic candidates they are facing.
Even worse, these candidates are incapable of banding together to articulate a unified vision for the state. Both Swearengin and the Republican candidate for secretary of state, Pete Peterson, declined to endorse Kashkari, their own party's candidate for governor. California Republican Party Chair Jim Brulte had some choice words about the situation following the party's convention last weekend:
In the e-mail, obtained by The Sacramento Bee, Brulte wrote, “Let’s try to show our face of one big happy family… Move the needle forward for all our candidates in 2014… And then help me get rid of a couple of the four conventions this party has to hold every two years.”
In a separate message Saturday, apparently about Swearengin’s decision not to endorse Kashkari, Brulte wrote, “Felony stupid.”
In Peterson's case, his lack of involvement might be owed to the fact that he is campaigning for secretary of state and wishes to convey a lack of bias. But the discord between Swearengin and Kashkari is far juicier.
Kashkari has set about portraying himself as the face of a new, kindler, gentler Republican Party, one that does not hate on immigrants or rage about social issues, but one more focused on issues about the economy and the size of government. He has also been attempting to put chinks in Gov. Brown's armor by claiming that California's economy is not as robust as it should be. His campaign's method of illustrating these points, however, has been an embarrassment to both himself and to Swearengin. In late July, Kashkari went to Fresno, the city of which Swearengin is mayor, in an attempt to demonstrate that the state's economy is unsound. To illustrate the point, he posed as an unemployed homeless man—with a camera crew at hand—to document just how hard it was to find work.
For Kashkari, attacking Fresno's economy was simply a means to an end: use one of California's more economically depressed cities as a way to try to gain a hint of traction against the incumbent. For Swearengin, it was a source of public embarrassment:
It's not surprising that Swearengin and other Central Valley Republicans might be miffed that Kashkari picked Fresno as a prime example of the problems of poverty and homelessness. Not only is Fresno one of California's few large cities with a GOP mayor, but the Central Valley is a Republican stronghold that Kashkari needs to win big to have any chance of beating Gov. Jerry Brown in November. Kashkari could have selected any one of several Democratic strongholds with homelessness problems, such as San Francisco or Oakland, to make his point.
And that's not all: the No. 1 focus of Kashkari's campaign is arguably the elimination of the high-speed rail project that broke ground recently in the Central Valley. Swearengin supports the plan precisely because it will bring tens of thousands of jobs
to the area. And in a perfect demonstration of the small-mindedness of his campaign, Kashkari held a rally
late last week in which he gave away gas cards for the privilege of watching him smash a toy train. Yes, this actually happened:
Campaign lawyers noted that the free gas cards went beyond the hot dogs and sodas typically given out at political rallies and questioned their appropriateness. California's election code prohibits the giving of gifts to garner votes for or against a candidate.
"I think this could be characterized as an inducement to vote," said Jim Sutton, an attorney in San Francisco who has worked on electoral issues for both parties. But "is the D.A. going to bother for $2,500 given out by this B-level candidate who's trying to garner some press attention?"
This is what the Republican Party has been reduced to in California: pleading with their national counterparts to let them catch a breath. Having their statewide candidates not even support each other, because of slights both perceived and real. And seeing their gubernatorial candidate reduced to using $25 dollar gas cards to entice non-voters to watch him smash a toy train.
On the bright side: it can't possibly get any worse, can it?