GOP is all but extinct in California — and running further right to try to save itself


One former GOP consultant said the state's Republican Party has 'a steep hill to climb' — and pushing to the right is not likely to do it any favors.

As conservative activists attempt to launch a recall election to oust California's Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom for what his opponents claim is a botched response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it's clear the California Republican Party is moving further right in an effort to maintain relevance.

But rather than unifying behind a moderate message more in line with the leanings of the state, the California GOP is making an ill-fated effort to maintain relevance by embracing its far-right wing.

This month, California GOP delegates introduced a resolution to censure Rep. David Valadao, one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Donald Trump for his incitement of the Jan. 6 insurrection — despite Trump's unpopularity among Californian voters. Two-thirds of Californians backed Joe Biden in November's election, and Trump's 2016 vote share was less than 32%.

The motion to censure Valadao was ultimately quashed by fellow Republicans without a vote.

Betsy Mahan, the Republican Party chair of Sacramento County, also brought forward a measure to permit the GOP's executive committee to officially back a replacement for Newsom in a potential recall election — a resolution she ultimately pulled after pushback from her own party.

According to Thad Kousser, a University of California-San Diego political science specialist, "This is California's version of the national battle for the soul and the future of the Republican Party. Just when the Republican Party in California is showing signs of life, it's deciding to cannibalize itself."

But as anti-Newsom activists argue to oust the governor, they're using talking points out of touch with what most Californians want. The RecallGavin2020 campaign calls on its website for "No More ... free illegal immigrant health care ... gun control ... ammo regulations ... threatening 2nd Amendment rights ... overruling popular votes ... threatening Prop. 13."

But California voters, however, are most concerned about issues like the COVID-19 pandemic and the homelessness crisis. They support their state's gun control measures by a wide margin, and 60% of California voters agree that immigrants are treated unfairly in the United States.

Catering to right-wing extremists has not yet worked to boost the viability of the state's GOP: More than 33,000 California voters left the Republican Party in the month following the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. "[The state GOP has] a steep hill to climb, but the first step is to put together a party that looks and sounds more like California," former GOP political consultant and University of Berkeley political science lecturer Dan Schnur told Capitol Weekly.

And experts say Republican efforts to remove Newsom from office are likely to fail.

While the recall effort could make it to the ballot — California's requirements for initiating a recall election are laxer than that of most states, and Republicans have gathered more than the necessary signatures, if all are valid, to kick off the vote — an election is unlikely to install a new governor. Executing a gubernatorial recall election is difficult and has only happened four times in American history.

One high-profile instance in California in 2003 involved the successful recall of former Democratic Gov. Gray Davis by 55% of Californian voters during a period of statewide fiscal upheaval. But the Republican replacement Californians voted in, film actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, had a unique personal appeal and broadly moderate positions.

"To have the recall succeed, they need a larger-than-life figure," Democratic strategist Garry South told the San Francisco Chronicle. "There aren't any more Arnold Schwarzeneggers hanging out in the wings."

A Newsom ouster is less likely to succeed since the political climate in California is deeper blue than ever. Newsom won 62% of the popular vote in 2018 whereas the recalled Davis had won only 47% in 2002, according to FiveThirtyEight. And no Republican has won a statewide election since Schwarzenegger's gubernatorial reelection in 2006.

In 2003, 35% of Californians were registered Republicans as opposed to 25% in 2020, and Biden won 63% of the vote in 2020 compared to Democratic candidate Al Gore's slimmer margin of 53% in 2000. Democrats also have a supermajority in both chambers of the state legislature.

"I'm also very hopeful that Californians will recognize that this is a Republican-driven effort built on a fantasy that they can slip a Republican governor into the bluest state in the country," California Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis told CNN last week.

Meanwhile, unlike during Davis' 2003 recall election, when a motley group of 135 candidates was on the ballot, Democrats have presented a united front in support of Newsom.

"He is still quite popular in this state. People recognize he's been dealt a very tough hand," Kounalikis said last week.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.