California GOP ponders way forward after stunning losses
LOS ANGELES — In a speech to fellow Republicans in May, U.S. Rep. Mimi Walters issued an ominous warning about the coming election — California Democrats, she said, were “coming for all of us.”
She was right.
The congresswoman’s stunning defeat Thursday in the heart of Orange County, once a nationally known Republican stronghold, extended a Democratic rout that has seen five GOP-held House seats fall in the state, with another one threatened.
Last week’s election delivered mixed results around the U.S. — Republicans held the Senate, Democrats seized the House — but in California voters turned the state an even deeper shade of Democratic blue.
With Walters’ loss to newcomer Katie Porter, Democrats will hold a 44-9 edge in U.S. House seats, with another Orange County GOP seat in peril. The county was once home to President Richard Nixon and was considered a foundation of the modern conservative movement, gaining the moniker “Reagan country.”
Democrats are on track to hold every statewide office — again. And there wasn’t even a Republican on the ballot for U.S. Senate.
“The California Republican Party isn’t salvageable at this time,” concluded Kristin Olsen, a former Republican leader in the state Assembly.
“The Grand Old Party is dead — partly because it has failed to separate itself from today’s toxic, national brand of Republican politics,” she wrote in a column on the website CALmatters.
Shawn Steel, one of the state’s two Republican National Committee members, said her party has “reached the point of desperation.”
“The party’s problems have been around longer and run much deeper than any one person. From money to grassroots organization, California Republicans are completely outmatched,” Steel wrote on the Washington Examiner website.
A generation ago, the state was once a reliable win for the GOP in presidential elections. And in Orange County, largely white, conservative homeowners delivered winning margins for Republicans year after year.
But a surge in immigrants transformed the state and its voting patterns. The number of Hispanics, blacks and Asians has outnumbered whites since 1998. And many of those new voters lean Democratic. The number of registered Republicans has been in a freefall for years — even independents outnumber them.
In a sign of what was to come, Hillary Clinton carried Orange County in the 2016 presidential election, the first Democrat to do so since the Depression era.
A stronger tack leftward has now dramatically arrived.
Walters’ loss was a shock. By embracing Porter, the conservative-leaning district with a 7-point Republican registration edge embraced a protégé of Democratic Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a liberal favorite.
Along with her loss in Orange County, 15-term Rep. Dana Rohrabacher was ousted from his nearby district. The seat held by retiring Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, which cuts across the southern part of the county, was taken by Democrat Mike Levin, an environmental attorney.
The 39th District, anchored in the northern part of the county, remains undecided in a contest between Republican Young Kim and Democrat Gil Cisneros. In returns Thursday, Cisneros climbed into a 941-vote lead, after Kim held the early edge in a district held by retiring Republican Rep. Ed Royce.
Meanwhile, Democrat Josh Harder seized the seat of Republican Rep. Jeff Denham in the farm belt, while Democrat Katie Hill took Republican Rep. Steve Knight’s seat north of Los Angeles.
Clearly, President Donald Trump was a factor.
He lost California by over 4 million votes in 2016 and has remained unpopular, and many voters saw an opportunity to send a message to Washington. Walters and Rohrabacher, for example, were closely tied to the president, while Democratic candidates campaigned openly against Trump’s agenda.
But demographic changes have also helped Democrats, and in key congressional races they fielded a group of fresh faces, not career politicians.
Steel, the GOP committeeman, noted that Democrats raised more money and did a better job registering voters and using social media.
The state GOP has debated for years whether the party needs to turn to the political center, or right. As far back as 2007, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger warned the party was “dying at the box office” and needed to claim issues usually associated with the Democratic agenda, including climate change and health care reform.
The latest setbacks have set off a fresh round of Republican soul-searching. Travis Allen, a former GOP candidate for governor and ardent Trump supporter, said Thursday he was entering the race to be the state party leader. The party, he said, is at the “lowest point it’s been since the 1880s.”