After a Failed Recall, California Republicans are Once Again Fighting for Their Future
In the recall effort against Gov. Gavin Newsom, Republicans thought they had found a uniting rallying cry. Instead, the campaign highlighted — and exacerbated — long-standing tensions between the establishment and the grassroots, while leaving the question of how the party can end its losing trend in the state unanswered.
The GOP can rest easy knowing that it made Newsom sweat more than any other Democrat in the last decade of statewide elections, at least until the polls closed and the governor easily won.
The lopsided result emphasizes how the recall effort’s wasted opportunities and internal squabbles have made the party’s long climb back to political relevance all the more difficult.
The state party was unable to unite behind a candidate to replace Newsom or raise enough money to compete with the governor’s large war chest. Kevin Faulconer, the moderate former mayor of San Diego, who had been considered as a potential savior by Republican leaders, failed to garner traction with voters. Larry Elder has enthralled the conservative base, but moderates and hardliners alike are concerned about his potential to broaden his base if he runs for governor next year.
The recall aftermath, according to veterans of the state’s Republican politics, fits into a larger pattern of dysfunction.
Bill Whalen said that “In California, Republicans don’t fall in line,” previously a prominent advisor to former Governor Pete Wilson, he twisted a tired political cliche about the GOP’s claimed discipline. “Instead, they line up to fall all over one another.”
The recall process had some silver linings, according to Jessica Millan Patterson, chairperson of the state GOP, who cited an increase in the number of volunteers and voter connections, but conceded that the results were far from ideal.
Patterson’s time in the state party predates by decades the tug of war between the establishment and the grassroots. In some ways, their differences are a matter of different shades of red; staunch conservatives tend to lean into the culture wars with vehement opposition to abortion, gun control, and illegal immigration, whereas moderates downplay those social issues and focus instead on business-friendly policies.
But the disagreements aren’t just about policy. There are also regional rivalries – Republicans in northern, rural, and inland areas frequently clash with those in big cities — and widespread distrust among the professional political class, which includes advisers, lobbyists, and many elected officials.
Even though California has become a deeper shade of blue, there are many Californians whose ideologies are linked with the reddest parts of the country, and their clout among the grassroots has grown as moderates quit the party.
Republicans agree that they need to make a change, but they can’t agree on how to accomplish it. Republican moderates argue that the party needs to widen its appeal beyond its hard-right wing, even if it means surrendering ideological purity.