Dan Walters: Has California Republican Party learned its lesson?

dwalters@sacbee.comDecember 7, 2012 

Have California's Republicans finally learned a lesson that some of their leaders have been trying to drive home for years – that they cannot prosper, or even survive, as a party of aging white men in the Western Hemisphere's most culturally complex society?

Perhaps so, since the state GOP is poised to make Jim Brulte, who has been issuing those warnings for years, its state chairman with a mandate to improve its fortunes.

Even the most anti-immigrant, anti-gay marriage, anti-tax, anti-abortion Republican activist must now recognize that with the party's wipeout in last month's elections, continuing down its recent path is a plunge into complete irrelevance.

Less than 30 percent of the state's registered voters call themselves Republicans. That was just about the party's share of the November electorate, and that's about its share of the California Legislature and of the state's congressional delegation.

But if Brulte, a veteran politician who engineered GOP gains in the Legislature in the 1990s, can shape up the party's infrastructure and finances, there may be an opportunity for it to make gains because of the growth of independent voters.

In fact, the expansion of independents has hurt Democratic voter registration even more than it has hurt Republican ranks.

When Jerry Brown was in his first governorship three-plus decades ago, Democrats commanded nearly 60 percent of voter registration, but have since dropped to less than 44 percent. Republicans, meanwhile, have rarely been above 35 percent.

Despite inferior voter registration numbers, however, Republicans regularly won statewide contests in the 1980s because their mainstream candidates could appeal to independents and conservative Democrats. When Brulte was the Republican Assembly leader in 1994, before moving to the Senate, his party won a narrow Assembly majority.

There's been a huge sociological and cultural change in California since then, and the GOP ignored Brulte's warnings that it would become irrelevant if it failed to attract more women and nonwhite candidates and voters.

However, the soaring ranks of independents – now more than 20 percent – indicate that they are not wedded to the Democrats for one reason or another.

Therefore, they might be amenable to Republicans on issues – perhaps taxes, school reform or public pensions – where they consider Democrats to be wrongheaded.

Education would appear to be a particularly fertile field for Republicans because of a division between Democratic politicians who are joined at the hip to school unions and parents – especially Latino parents – who clamor for reform.

California's GOP is on life support. Whether it dies is up to the party's more realistic leaders, such as Brulte.

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