California Democrats’ massive victory in last month’s election made their party even more dominant at all levels of government and in doing so, confined Republicans to relatively tiny redoubts, mostly in rural areas.
Calmatters political writer Ben Christopher summarized the GOP’s exile in this sentence:
“This year, 26 percent of Californians are represented in Congress by a Republican. Next year, it will be down to 13 percent.”
By its nature, the Democratic wave, fueled by disdain for President Donald Trump, swept away Republican legislators and congressional members who had won and held so-called “swing districts” by adopting relatively moderate positions on such hot-button issues as immigration.
The GOP officeholders who survived tend to be steadfast conservatives who embrace Trump, while the state’s Democratic Party appears to be drifting leftward, albeit with some internal ideological fissures.
The intensified polarization of the two parties — very conservative, Trumpist Republicans and very liberal, Bernie Sanders-loving Democrats — essentially isolates millions of Californians, likely a majority, who are somewhere in the political middle.
They want governance that taxes fairly, budgets responsibly, provides vital services efficiently and effectively, promotes family stability, encourages economic opportunity and doesn’t try to control every human activity.
The question, however, is whether the political middle can find representation in such a polarized state.
Two relatively new organizations are trying to encourage middle-of-the-road politics, and their success or failure may answer the question.
Disaffected Republican politicians, led by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, have launched New Way California and see opportunity in the isolation of the state’s GOP.
“Californians are tired of partisanship and government dysfunction,” its manifesto declares. “They expect elected leaders to address the state’s pressing problems. Just saying ‘no’ or blindly opposing any proposal for purely partisan reasons does not serve our constituents. The most durable solutions have bipartisan support.”
Kristin Olsen, a former state Assembly Republican leader who’s now a Stanislaus County supervisor, is one of the organization’s most visible figures and gained some national media attention as the GOP was pummeled in last month’s election.
With the state GOP now linked to Trump, Olsen said in a recent public radio interview, “I believe it’s not only toxic, but it’s dead in California. And I believe that death had to occur if there’s any opportunity to revive a viable Republican Party in the future for our state.” She added that NewWay California may try to revive the GOP or form a new party and “The jury’s still out on that.”
New Way California’s Democratic counterpart, occupying virtually the same ideological territory, is Govern for California, founded by David Crane, a Democrat who was an investment banker for 24 years before becoming Schwarzenegger’s economic adviser.
Crane, who now lectures at Stanford University, angered Democrats in the Legislature — and even more so, labor unions — by criticizing how state pension funds and other financial affairs are managed.
In 2006, the Senate refused to confirm his appointment by Schwarzenegger to the State Teachers’ Retirement System governing board, and five years later, the Senate wouldn’t even take up his nomination to the University of California’s Board of Regents.
Crane continues to issue regular critiques of how the state manages its finances — most recently about how the immense Medi-Cal program operates. Govern for California has also plunged into the political thicket raising and disbursing money to centrist politicians and candidates.
Perhaps New Way California and Govern for California should join forces and create a new party, or quasi-party, to represent the interests of middle-of-the-road Californians, who otherwise are becoming political refugees in their own state.
CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more commentary by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.