A California Republican once had a distinct identity: a Western live-and-let-live conservatism that reserved its harshest judgments for the size and shape of government, not people. Or so Chad Mayes, a man of various identities, would argue.
Mayes is a Republican member of the California assembly, an evangelical Christian and a white guy in a state where Latinos are the single largest ethnicity. He points out this last characteristic in interviews, not in a “people like me should be afraid” kind of way but as a simple statement of the demographic evolution that he says his party once welcomed.
He wants Republicans to return to that message. Many state Republicans do not, which has given him yet another identity: party outcast.
Last year, Mayes’s own caucus ousted him as the assembly’s Republican leader after he supported a Democratic environmental initiative, a measure to extend Gov. Jerry Brown’s cap-and-trade program. Since then, he has staked out a distant corner of the already remote state Republican wilderness.
Now, though, Mayes has an idea to remake — and hopefully revive — his troubled party. He has started a group called New Way California. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the last Republican to win a statewide race (and that was more than a decade ago), has signed on.
Mayes’s success (or lack thereof) has consequences for the direction of California’s politics, now dominated by a Democratic Party with little check on its policy ambitions. The state has also served historically as a training ground for Republicans with national ambitions, a delegate-rich launchpad that has been empty of GOP prospects in recent years. That, too, could change if Mayes remakes the party with a more broadly appealing message.
His group has little money. But it has produced two Internet-only ads to begin setting out what “California Republicans” stand for. The issues selected: immigration and climate change, highly resonant with the state’s young and increasingly Latino electorate.
During a talk in his State Capitol office in Sacramento, Mayes, who is 40 years old and represents a mixed urban-rural district east of Los Angeles, outlined some of the thinking behind New Way and how he believes Republicans can become viable again in statewide races.
“Right now, we are a party of exclusion and not a party of inclusion,” he said. “I say if people can be with us 60 percent of the time, we’ll take you.”
California Republicans have lost purchase on much of the state electorate since 1994, when Gov. Pete Wilson, once thought of as a moderate member of the party, embraced Proposition 187, which would have denied even emergency medical services to undocumented immigrants. The first ad Mayes and his group released, late last month, went directly to the party’s problem with Latinos.
It featured Ronald Reagan, the iconic California Republican, delivering his farewell address to the nation from the Oval Office, during which he evoked the image of the country as “shining city on the hill” that attracted people from all over the world.
“New” Way California, really? With Reagan as the spokesman?
“There was lots of debate about producing that one. There was a lot of ‘Oh brother, here we go, it’s Reagan,’ right?” I mean, I’ve called myself a Reagan Republican many times, but he’s been overused for the last 25 years in Republican politics. So, to say, ‘Hey, it’s a new way’ but then you’re showing Reagan. Well, that seems awfully old.”
“Yet I thought that was such a brilliant 40 seconds,” Mayes continued. “I don’t know if I could ever articulate it that way. With that, we said we’re going to put that out.”
The message drew a clear line between how Mayes says he views the Republican Party and how Donald Trump does. He is clear why he is a Republican, if a moderate one on today’s spectrum. He said he has “strong ideological differences” with Democratic orthodoxy and its view of government’s role.
“I still believe in the power of the individual over the power of the collective,” Mayes said. “But I also believe that there’s a responsibility for individuals to act to benefit one another.”
The Republican assembly caucus has been shrinking; the party now holds just 25 seats in the 80-member chamber. There is a Trump wing, represented most vocally in recent months by Assemblyman Travis Allen, a financial planner who represents a district south of Los Angeles that includes Huntington Beach. He has declared himself a candidate for governor.
Allen made Fox News a few weeks ago when he called on the federal government to arrest California’s attorney general, Xavier Becerra, for warning state business owners that they could face prosecution if they cooperate with federal officials in immigration raids. The legislature passed a law last year making California a “sanctuary state,” a designation that Becerra said prohibits businesses from giving federal agents employment records.
Last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions filed a lawsuit alleging that California had violated the Constitution by enacting laws that obstruct federal immigration laws. Sessions followed up with a speech before law enforcement officials in California in which he berated state lawmakers and declared: “There is no secession. Federal law is the supreme law of the land.”
In an interview before the federal lawsuit and Sessions’s condemnation of the state’s Democratic leadership, Allen said “with this direct threat to California businesses, Xavier Becerra is clearly obstructing the ability of federal immigration authorities to do their constitutional duty and must be prosecuted.”
“The leadership of the California Democrat Party has left the average California Democrat far behind,” Allen said. “Most Californians believe in common sense and the rule of law. And most Californians have begun to see the benefits of our new president and the incredible economic boom that we’ve witnessed in the last year, directly attributable to his policies.”
Mayes speaks little about Trump, who is scheduled to make his first visit as president to California on Tuesday to view models of his proposed border wall and attend a fundraiser. But he does not necessarily disagree with Allen on the state Democratic Party’s shift and the possibilities it might raise for his party to gain ground, only on what policies and political tone should be used. Where Allen talks of prosecuting the opposition, Mayes unabashedly uses the word “love” as a missing element in American politics.
“I don’t want government involved in every part of people’s lives. I don’t want them telling businesses how to operate their businesses,” he said. “At the same time, we think that there is an incredible amount of diversity in this state, and not just by the color of your skin, but also your religion, your sexual orientation and those sorts of things. We need to have a healthy respect for one another and just begin to love one another.”
“We’re saying we’re going to love people instead of despising people,” he continued. “We’re going to embrace all Californians instead of having contempt for those who have different opinions than we do.”
The group released its climate change ad this week. “Climate change is real,” the ad states, “California Republicans believe it and are working to address it.” The Trump administration holds a more ambiguous view, and recently opened California’s coastal waters to offshore drilling in a move that has infuriated many here.
Is anyone listening?
“All I know is that if we don’t do this or something else like this then there will be a lot fewer Republicans here in this building,” Mayes said. “At some point, you can do one of two things — either convert voters to your side or you have to reflect them. And there are those in our party that say, ‘Well we don’t want to convert’ or they think that we can’t convert. But in recent years we’ve been repelling voters instead of converting them. We’ve been going in the other direction.”