The side-door approach is one way to view California Republicans’ failed attempt to unseat Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) in Tuesday’s recall vote. The maneuver worked at first — Republicans managed to secure a special election — but then it blew up in their faces with Newsom’s easy victory.
The recall allowed Republican candidates to circumvent at least two normal barriers to elected office.
One is the GOP’s inability to win or place in California’s top-two primary system (in November 2018, four of nine statewide contests didn’t include a Republican alternative). The other is the party’s abject Election Day failures (including the recall referendum, Republicans have now failed in 52 of 53 statewide contests this century that didn’t involve Arnold Schwarzenegger).
Credit Newsom for a smart campaign. He took the threat seriously as polls showed him to be in trouble. He raised enough money — $80 million — to saturate California’s airwaves with a message that shifted focus from his spotty record overseeing the state’s bureaucracy to a referendum on whom Californians would trust in dealing with the pandemic (per this Newsom ad, “a matter of life and death”).
But the governor also got a big assist from his hapless Republican foes.
The leading GOP candidate to replace Newsom was talk-radio host Larry Elder, who seemed more interested in peddling pain-relief medication on Fox News than stating his case for relieving Newsom.
Behind Elder, former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer was once considered Republicans’ best hope at winning statewide, given his moderate positions — he supports abortion rights, same-sex marriage and a path to citizenship — but he was unable to gain traction even in this underwhelming field. A distant third among Republican contenders was business executive John Cox, who had resorted to stunt-campaigning with a 1,000-pound Kodiak bear.
What comes next for the scraping-rock-bottom California Republican Party? Simple: Adapt or die.
And maybe hop a plane to Boston to see how Republican candidates can win despite a deep-blue landscape.
Republican governors have presided over Massachusetts for 23 of the past 31 years. That’s despite an enormous partisan disparity — Republicans account for less than 10 percent of registered voters vs. 31.6 percent Democratic and 57.4 percent independents (so-called unenrolled). That GOP disadvantage nearly mirrors California’s, where Democrats enjoy a 22.5 percentage point edge over Republicans in voter registration.
But the difference between east and west: Massachusetts Republicans adapt to their environment. Thus Mitt Romney, a one-term governor there from 2003 to 2007, championed a climate-change protection plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and a “Romneycare” reboot that proved problematic once he challenged President Barack Obama in 2012.
The California GOP solution seems obvious: Run more nuanced candidates, such as Faulconer. But Faulconer would have faced a major impediment had he, and not Elder, led the recall’s replacement field: Donald Trump. Faulconer voted for Trump in 2016, then attempted to distance himself from the Trump brand as he set his sights on statewide office — an act of disloyalty, according to Donald Trump Jr. Had Faulconer been a threat, Newsom would have done as he did to Elder: place Faulconer in ads alongside the former president, who is box-office poison in the Golden State.
Herein lies the California GOP’s quandary: Try as the state party might to cultivate centrists willing to break with the right on climate change and reproductive rights, it’s still at the mercy of a national party that doesn’t connect to mainstream Californians.
Again, look to Massachusetts: GOP Gov. Charlie Baker, now in his second term, has publicly distanced himself from Trump and is decidedly non-Trumpy regarding vaccine mandates. That has drawn the ire of national Republicans, who are reportedly maneuvering to try to deny him a third term, but apparently it has only buttressed his popularity among Massachusetts voters.
The Trump-aligned national party — that is to say, essentially the entire Republican leadership — may succeed in freezing Baker out of the nomination next year. But at least he and two fellow Republican gubernatorial predecessors have managed to win four of the last six contests in Massachusetts. Their California counterparts meanwhile have managed to lose five of the last six non-recall gubernatorial elections — four of those by double digits.
Imitating another state would be a bitter pill for some California Republicans who are long on nostalgia, living in the Nixon-Reagan dreamland, but are myopic about the present and future. But with the side door now slammed shut, why not look elsewhere for a political locksmith?