Shawn Steel: California Republicans Must Think Like a Political Insurgency to Survive

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California Republicans’ three-decade slide has reached a new low.

Democrats hold every statewide office, three-quarters of the state’s legislative seats, and 46 of the state’s 53 congressional seats. They’ve even seized the state’s last Republican stronghold. Once the most Republican county in America, Orange County no longer has a single Republican representative in Congress.

Beware calling the bottom too early.

“This is not high tide for Democrats yet,” predicts Paul Mitchell, a political data analyst who anticipates California Democrats will perform better with higher turnout in the presidential election.

There’s no question that Democrats played up the “Trump effect” to energize their base and generate hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign contributions from a national network of small-dollar donors. The President’s approval rating hovers around 39 percent in the home of the “Resistance.”

But hostility to Trump, though a contributing factor,  does not explain the full scope of California Republicans’ problems.

Republicans who repudiated the President performed just as poorly as his biggest supporters. Last summer, State Assemblywoman Catharine Baker (R-Dublin), the Bay Area’s lone Republican representative, joined Democrats in co-authoring a state house resolution censuring President Trump. Ms. Baker campaigned on her pro-choice, pro-environment, and pro-gun control record. Yet, she met the same fate as her polar opposite, State Assemblyman Matthew Harper (R-Huntington Beach), an unabashed Trump supporter.

Ideology also doesn’t matter. Excluding Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ascension in the 2003 recall, moderate and conservative GOP gubernatorial candidates have languished between 38 and 42 percent of the vote. This year’s nominee, John Cox, who was endorsed by the president, matched Dan Lungren’s 38 percent in 1998. Four years ago, Republican Neel Kashkari, an Indian-American immigrant who supported same-sex marriage, abortion rights, and a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants, finished at 40 percent. In 2010, Meg Whitman spent $177 million, including $144 million of her own money, for 41 percent of the vote. Conservative Bill Simon did the best, hitting 42 percent in his failed 2002 bid.

California has been trending Democratic for a long time, which has spurred a vicious demographic cycle. Republican voter registration is down to 24 percent, falling behind decline-to-state voters. Millions of California Republicans have left the state. Since 2007, California has experienced a net domestic out-migration of a million citizens.

Republicans’ greatest disadvantage is in campaign funding. For all their talk of Citizens United, Democrats were awash in more than a billion dollars in campaign cash. Billionaire Tom Steyer put up $120 million for sophisticated campaign operations that carried out youth voter registration, voter contact, and get-out-the-vote efforts in targeted congressional seats. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg dealt the $100 million knockout punch with late spending that put many congressional Democrats over the top. In the closing weeks of the campaign, Bloomberg’s political action committee funded $9 million in last-minute attack ads against just two California Republican incumbents.

How should California Republicans move forward?

First, Republicans must acknowledge that traditional campaign tactics only work when two sides are evenly matched. We aren’t a political party in California. We are an insurgency. If we’re to survive, our tactics should reflect that reality.

Money: Republicans must develop an answer to Act Blue, the national fundraising conduit for progressive candidates. “Act Red” would create a national network of small donors to write $5, $10 and $20 checks to Republican candidates. We may never be able to match billionaires like Bloomberg or Steyer, but we can tap into the large number of hard-working families fearful of California’s decline.

Crowdsourcing: In addition to building a national small donor network, Republicans need to channel the power of the crowd to hold Democrat incumbents accountable. Shortly after the 2016 election, liberal “Resistance” groups directly confronted GOP members of Congress at their homes and offices to catch them in gaffes. Republicans should respond in kind. Crowdsourcing these campaign activities is a low-cost way to expose Democrat members of Congress on video.

Legal Activism: Republican lawyers need to engage in “lawfare,” the same legal activist technique that groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have employed to radically undermine California’s porous voter integrity laws. Under the state’s “Motor Voter” program, for example, every person in California that interacts with the Department of Motor Vehicles is automatically registered to vote. Predictably, the program has come under fire for double registering as many as 77,000 people, including 1,500 ineligible voters. Republican lawyers could work with political campaigns to identify instances of illegal activities and, where appropriate, file state and federal lawsuits to challenge laws that encourage voter fraud.

Ballot Harvesting: Democrats recently changed state law to allow campaign operatives to go door-to-door collecting ballots. This “ballot harvesting” is especially effective in counties that mail ballots to every voter – whether they requested one or not. Republicans must develop and employ ballot harvesting of our own to boost turnout among low-propensity GOP voters.

Outnumbered in voter registration, outspent in campaign spending, and outmanned with union door-knockers, California Republicans have no time to waste.

Shawn Steel, a former California Republican Party chair, is California’s committeeman for the Republican National Committee.


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