California’s ‘lonely’ Republicans: What ultra-minority status is like

Why We Wrote This

America may be closely divided – but in many states, the majority party has all the power, leaving the other side without a voice. The minority often resorts to the courts as its only avenue to try to shape policy.  

Francine Kiefer/The Christian Science Monitor
Huntington Beach Mayor Erik Peterson in his office on July 16, 2019. Mayor Peterson, a Republican who hails from one of the last bastions of California conservatism, says his city is "100%" being singled out for a lawsuit by California's Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom.

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Extreme minority status is a common condition in divided America. According to Ballotpedia, a single party has an absolute grip on power in 19 states, controlling the governorship as well as veto-proof majorities in their legislatures. Democrats are powerless minorities in 16 such states, while Republicans are completely shut out in California, Oregon, and Illinois. 

In California, fewer than a quarter of registered voters today are Republicans, and Democrats have a supermajority in the legislature. In recent months, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has cast Republicans as xenophobes and nativists, destined for the “waste bin of history.”

For many in the GOP here, it feels like they’ve been set out on the curb with the trash. In interviews, California Republicans describe themselves as “disenfranchised,” “lonely,” “a remnant,” and “not part of the conversation.”

Huntington Beach Mayor Erik Peterson says he finds the situation increasingly “frustrating.” With no influence in Sacramento, Republicans can’t affect regulations, which he personally feels in his own business as an electrical contractor. They can’t block tax increases or effectively shape the budget, which just extended health care to young unauthorized immigrants. So, they resort to fighting through the courts, says the mayor. “It’s the only thing we can do.”

To understand what it’s like to be a Republican in California today, spend some time in Huntington Beach.

In January, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a lawsuit against this once solidly Republican community for violating a state law to allow more housing. The suit came on the heels of the city’s courtroom victory claiming exemption from California’s “sanctuary state” law – a ruling the state is now appealing.

The governor is “100%” singling out Huntington Beach, says Mayor Erik Peterson. The city’s attorney agrees, pointing out that 50 other cities have not fulfilled the housing mandate. “I believe they’re still upset that we beat them” on the sanctuary issue, says the mayor from his office, a surf board propped up in the corner. “Of course, we’re all racists because of that – that’s what they tell us. But it actually had nothing to do with illegal immigration. It had to do with the state’s overreach.”

Last year, Orange County, the cradle of California conservatism, lost four of its congressional seats to Democrats. Fewer than a quarter of California’s registered voters today are Republicans, and Democrats have a supermajority that renders the GOP powerless in the legislature. In recent months, Governor Newsom has cast Republicans as xenophobes and nativists, destined for the “waste bin of history.”

For many in the GOP here, it feels like they’ve been set out on the curb with the trash. In interviews, California Republicans describe themselves as “disenfranchised,” “lonely,” “a remnant,” and “not part of the conversation.”

Huntington Beach’s mayorship is technically a nonpartisan position. But as a Republican in a deep-blue state, Mayor Peterson says he finds the situation increasingly “frustrating.”  With no influence in Sacramento, Republicans can’t affect regulations, which he personally feels in his own business as an electrical contractor. They can’t block tax increases or effectively shape the budget, which just extended health care to young unauthorized immigrants. So, they resort to fighting through the courts, says the mayor. “It’s the only thing we can do.”

Francine Kiefer/The Christian Science Monitor
Huntington Beach city attorney Michael Gates in his office July 16. Mr. Gates is leading the legal battle for the city in its fight with the state over a housing mandate and the "sanctuary state" law.

A common condition

Extreme minority status is a common condition in divided America. According to Ballotpedia, a single party has an absolute grip on power in 19 states, controlling the governorship as well as veto-proof majorities, or supermajorities, in their legislatures. Democrats are powerless minorities in 16 such states, while Republicans are completely shut out in California, Oregon, and Illinois. Last month, Republican state senators in Oregon fled to Idaho to deny Democrats a quorum – and a vote – on a sweeping climate-change bill. The bill petered out, much to the delight of Republicans.

Wisconsin state Sen. Jon Erpenbach had a similar experience, though it didn’t end as well. In 2011, he and 13 fellow Senate Democrats went into exile in Illinois for three weeks in order to delay consideration of a major anti-union bill. The bill was being pushed by then-Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-dominated legislature. Ultimately, the bill became law.  

As a voiceless minority, “you feel very, very disenfranchised,” says Mr. Erpenbach. “You use every possible parliamentary tool to stop what they do, and 9 times out of 10, you lose.”

What distresses Mr. Erpenbach most is that Wisconsin is overall a purple state – but that parity is not reflected in the legislature because of gerrymandered voting districts. Voters last year elected a Democrat as a governor, restoring “balance” in government, as Mr. Erpenbach puts it, but not before the GOP legislature used a lame-duck session to restrict the incoming governor’s powers.

“Whether it’s the Democrats in a supermajority or the Republicans in a supermajority, it seems like the parties are just more concerned about 50.1% of the people – [that] enough people will elect them and keep them in a majority,” says Mr. Erpenbach. 

As in California, the minority party in Wisconsin turned to the courts to try to remedy partisan redistricting and the diminished governorship. They’ve lost on both counts. Mr. Erpenbach says Democrats have no choice but to continue “plugging away” at the redistricting message, educating voters so that when representatives go home, they hear about it. 

“It is what it is”

Republicans in California, meanwhile, can’t agree on how to restore their voice. It’s been a long decline – precipitated, many observers believe, by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson in the 1990s. He went against demographic trends and pushed anti-immigration measures. In the short term, it won him reelection, but it also drove Latinos into the arms of Democrats. Other factors also came into play, but with white people now a minority in California and Donald Trump in the White House, Republicans are struggling in this deeply blue state.

The state GOP needs to “stop fighting the culture wars” and instead present itself as a more “mainstream” party that focuses on pocketbook issues, as well as education and the environment, says Bill Whalen, former speechwriter for Governor Wilson. Republican consultant Mike Madrid blasts California Republicans for their “silence” on President Trump’s “racist tweets” about four Democratic women of color in the House.

On the other hand, Fred Whitaker, chairman of the Republican Party of Orange County, rejects the idea that Republicans should adjust their ideology.

“You can’t become the Democratic Party lite,” he says. Many Asians and Latinos are socially conservative, but fiscally liberal when it comes to larger government, he says. “Our job is to talk with every voter where they are, who align with our values, and see if we can’t bring them across.” The party must also field more candidates who look like the neighborhoods they come from, he says.

He and others believe that the state is headed for a financial crisis. It may have a surplus now, but it relies on high income taxes, and when the next recession hits, they say voters will see the error of their ways.

“Voters wanted a Democratic majority in statewide offices and in the legislature” – and now they have a high-tax state, with rising gas taxes and the highest rate of poverty in the nation, says Republican state Sen. John Moorlach, who represents Huntington Beach. “When a recession hits, it’s not going to be pretty.”

California’s Democrats won supermajority status last November. But Mr. Moorlach says he’s “not complaining” about his new situation. “It is what it is, que sera, sera.”

And he says at least Democrats have allowed him to have a voice, whether in committee or on the Senate floor. As vice chair of the powerful Energy, Utilities, and Communications Committee, he realizes he’s “pretty much a figurehead,” but he still contributes. Votes tend not to go the way he wants, but he has a chance to put things on record.

It’s not completely hopeless for Republicans, adds Marcia Godwin, a government expert at the University of La Verne in La Verne, California. Sometimes, bipartisan coalitions form in Sacramento when the liberal wing of the Democratic Party won’t go along, she says. And at the local level, “there’s still a fairly high amount of influence” in the areas where Republicans are concentrated, such as in Orange County. 

Asked whether supermajorities in one-party states are bad for democracy – or simply a reflection of the will of the people, she replies: “What’s good for democracy is the possibility of change. Even if it’s not the next election, maybe 10 years from now, there might be change.”

That is the hope for Republicans in California. And for Democrats in red states, as well.

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