California’s Republican leaders are distancing themselves from President-elect Trump – but they may want to consider a different strategy. Frankly, it’s going to take a new strategy, and a bit of a “Hail Mary” for the GOP to find a path back to relevance in the Golden State.
Last month, when the members of the newly constituted state legislature were sworn into office in what is a traditionally celebratory affirmation where no issues of substance beyond electing a President Pro-Tempore for the Senate and a Speaker for the Assembly takes place, Democrats rammed through strongly-worded resolutions throwing down the gauntlet, opposing any efforts by the federal government to crack down on illegal immigration.
Of course the Democratic legislators all supported the resolutions monolithically. But on the GOP side, while some rank and file members voted against the resolutions, Republican leadership in both chambers, along with quite a few members chose not to vote on the resolutions at all. Some GOP legislators even chose to vote for them! Clearly many made the conscious decision not to stand with the President-elect.
That said, Trump was not the choice of the GOP establishment in California — nor, frankly, the choice of many conservative activists. Perhaps Senate GOP Leader Jean Fuller and Assembly GOP Leader Chad Mayes felt that to oppose the resolution, which among other things condemned some of Trump’s flamboyant anti-illegal immigrant rhetoric, would be seen as agreeing with Trump. Still, the message they sent on the first day of session was that there is a place, politically, that is neither anti-Trump, nor pro-Trump.
Not long afterwards California Republican Party (CRP) Chairman Jim Brulte made a de facto play to distance his organization from the President-elect by appointing “Never Trumper” and former Assembly GOP Leader Kristin Olsen to the important position of CRP Vice Chairmanship. According to her local paper, the Modesto Bee, Olsen refused to support Trump in the summer, after he became the nominee of the party. She was vocally critical of Trump in the primary, according to the Bee: “As Republican minority leader in the Assembly last year, Olsen slammed Trump during the primaries as being ‘intolerable and inexcusable … somebody who has never been active in the party and is looking for his 15 minutes of fame.’”
I get the strategy here – Trump lost in California by over 30 points! He fared more poorly than McCain or Romney here, and, well, Trump is very controversial. It would appear that our state’s Republican leaders in California want to try and stake out some sort of distinct profile for the Republican Party here as not the party of Donald Trump.
That said –and I say this as someone who wrote in longtime Dodgers baseball announcer Vin Scully on his Presidential ballot, and understands the flaws of Trump, but who has admittedly been impressed with his announced appointments and nominations — this is a fool’s errand for party leaders.
Let’s remember what happened on Election Day – and the desperate straights of the California GOP. We saw Republicans here lose key state legislative races, giving Democrats two-thirds majorities in both the State Senate and the Assembly (meaning they can now raise taxes, or put issues before voters, without a single GOP vote). The already small U.S. House GOP delegation of 14 of 53 seats almost shrank even more, with incumbent Darrell Issa staving off a challenge by just a few thousand votes. Democrats continue to control every statewide office, and there was not even a Republican on the general election ballot for U.S. Senate, with the “top two” system producing a Democrat vs. Democrat run-off, with San Francisco socialist Kamala Harris winning the seat.
The practical reality is that President Trump, along with the Republican Congress, is going to define the GOP brand nationally, period. Only in states with Republican governors and legislative majorities might you see some state-level branding of the party – but even in those cases, at best, it would be a “sharing the limelight” situation. Here in California there is no other Republican voice or voices of substance that will garner any attention.
In a couple of weeks Donald Trump will be our president and he and the Republican Congress are going to start doing a lot of high-profile things. Appointments will be formally made and will be up for confirmation, including a new Supreme Court Justice. Trump and Congress have an aggressive agenda for his first 100 days, including a repeal of Obamacare and passage of tax reform. And, yes, the GOP will also be defined by Trump’s unique and often uncouth style. He will say things brashly, and provoke eye-rolls by many, even his ardent supporters.
But, as the saying goes, the hand has been dealt and California Republicans are going to have to see it played out. There is a chance that a national Republican policy agenda will be enacted that will revive the economy, lead to job creation nationally, and help revive GOP prospects even in the bluest of states, like ours.
It seems a bit of a folly to try to keep an arm’s length from Trump. California Republican leaders might want to consider hitching themselves to Trump’s bandwagon, and to the national GOP. After all, if the Trump administration doesn’t help raise funds for the moribund California GOP, who will?