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You’ve heard the term, “All politics is local”? California Republicans had better hope so.

The pre-vote polls told us that this week’s gubernatorial matchup in Virginia would be a nailbiter. Instead, it was an electoral thrashing. Voters handed the governor’s mansion to Democrat Ralph Northam with a decisive 9 point margin while stripping the state GOP of its firm grip on the legislature’s lower chamber, reducing a supermajority to a virtual tie.

By all accounts, this blue wave—which also swept up statehouse races in New Jersey and New Hampshire, municipal contests in Pennsylvania, a special election in Washington state, and a Medicaid expansion vote in Maine—was as much a referendum on what’s happening in Washington, D.C., as it was a rebuke of local lawmakers. Or as Republican political consultant Mike Murphy told the Washington Post, Virginia was a test of whether the GOP’s electoral fates are tied to the president’s approval numbers. “The canary in the coal mine didn’t just pass out,” he said. “Its head exploded.”

Though political analysts are still analyzing the numbers, it sure looks that way. Virginia saw its highest increase in voter turnout in two decades, with the bulk of the bump coming from Clinton-winning districts in the suburbs. Young voters and voters with college educations flocked to the Democratic side. According to exit polls, a third of all voters said they cast their ballot in part to “express opposition to Donald Trump.”

“There may have been some local issues involved, but the main driver of what happened was the energy among base Democratic constituents who finally woke up,” said Mike Madrid, a Republican political consultant who advises the campaign of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Antonio Villaraigosa.

California Democrats are hoping for a similar awakening in the elections of 2018. On the line: their lock on power in Sacramento, where the party holds a commanding two-thirds supermajority of legislative seats, along with all statewide constitutional offices. At the same time, the GOP’s control of the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C., could also be decided here. Of the 14 California districts that last sent Republicans to Congress, seven voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump.

Hours before Tuesday’s election returns rolled in, GOP Rep. Darrell Issa of Vista became the first of those 14 to withdraw support for the current House GOP tax plan, saying it would strip away tax deductions disproportionately used by Californians. Democrats had identified Issa as a top target for 2018.

So how nervous should California Republican candidates be? Very, said Jason Cabel Roe, a Republican political consultant in San Diego.

“They’ve got to assert their willingness to step up to the president when they feel he’s wrong,” he said, but do so without alienating the party’s base. Though only 27 percent of California likely voters approve of the president, 7 in 10 Republicans still stand by their elected man.

“A majority of Republican voters don’t seem to really care about winning as much as they care about voting for someone who they believe will be a shot to the system,” Roe said.

Indeed, some Trump loyalists are arguing the election results merely prove that Republican candidates fell short because they failed to embrace President Trump even more enthusiastically.

While many other Republicans are wringing their hands, Democrats are imagining 2010 in reverse: Recall the historic shellacking the party took that year when conservatives—driven by Tea Party fervor, equal parts anti-Obamacare and anti-Obama—turned statehouses red across the country and flipped the House.

“Trump is clearly the giant orange blob blotting out the sun for Republicans,” said Dan Newman, a political consultant and spokesperson for Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the early Democratic frontrunner to be governor. “He's depressing moderate Republicans, alienating swing voters, and motivating Democrats—who are fired up like they haven't been in years.”

That’s the inversion California Democrats hope for heading into the 2018 midterms: depressed Republican numbers (as the base fails to turn out and moderates cross over to vote blue) and jacked-up Democratic turnout among so-called “low propensity” voters—non-white and younger voters who typically lean Democratic but who are usually less likely to turnout during off-year elections.

In the small number of elections we’ve seen in California this year—a special Congressional election, an assembly primary matchup, a handful of municipal races like the one in Palm Springs—we have haven’t seen that kind of turnout.

This week, in Virginia and elsewhere across the country, those stars finally seem to have aligned. But then again, 2018 is still a year away. And California is not Virginia.

According to Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data, Inc., the Golden State has been shielded in the recent past from the political waves that buffet the rest of the country.

As statehouses went red en masse in 2010, for example, Democrats in California actually picked up a legislative seat. “There some evidence to suggest that the waves stop at Reno,” he said.

Plus, the Democratic party’s current political dominance could serve to buffer the effect of an anti-Trump wave. Typically, the voters most animated during midterm elections are those hoping to rebuke the party in power. This week, voters in Virginia, New Jersey and Maine found ready targets for their frustration with the status quo among the Republicans occupying their statehouses and governor’s mansions. But in California, powerful Republicans are hard to come by.

And then there’s the simple fact of geographical distance: While national politics may weigh heavily on the mind of a D.C. suburbanite, said Mitchell, national politics might seem more abstract to a California voter, whereas the quality of local education, the housing crunch or the price of gas might feel more pressing.

California Republicans are certainly banking on that anyway—although the list of Republicans who didn’t respond to requests for comment on this story includes Republican National Committee member Harmeet Dhillon, Assembly Minority Leader Brian Dahle, and Assemblyman/gubernatorial candidate Travis Allen.

“In a low-turnout midterm election, at least some California Republican incumbents will find other issues to help them achieve re-election. Those who do survive, however, will do so in spite of their party’s leaders,” wrote Dan Schnur, a former GOP consultant who was a key aide to the state’s last Republican governor, and now a professor at the University of Southern California.

As far as Schnur is concerned, national Republicans have sized up California’s changing ideology and demographics and concluded “it’s not even worth fighting to retain a foothold in the nation’s largest state.”

So on the campaign trail, state Democrats will do everything in their power to remind voters that every last Republican dog catcher shares a party label with a wildly unpopular president.

“Here in California, the reason they want to talk about Donald Trump is because they don’t want to talk about the record they’ve created here,” Jim Brulte, the state GOP chairman told a gathering of Republicans at the party’s convention last month. After rattling off a list of economic and social ills facing the state (presumably all the fault of the party in power), he then tried out a phrase that is sure to resurface in campaign ads and talking points in the months to come: “They broke it; they own it.”

With that, the California Republicans have crafted themselves a midterm strategy. Keep it local. Talk about the gas tax. Talk about the state’s first-in-the-nation poverty rate. Donald Trump’s latest Twitter spat with Kim Jong Un? No, I’m afraid I haven’t seen that.

Or as Brulte put it while speaking at the Sacramento Press Club last week: “I don’t get the vapors over what’s going on in Washington D.C.”

Nor, presumably, in Virginia, New Jersey, or Maine.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

Days after losing his position as leader of Assembly Republicans, Chad Mayes was entertaining lobbyists and lawmakers at a bar near the state Capitol, raising money for his re-election with a live video message from Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“I think you are the future of the Republican Party,” Schwarzenegger said to Mayes from the big screen, as guests sipped cocktails and nibbled on ahi tuna hors d’oeuvres.

The Republican former governor went on to praise Mayes—a Yucca Valley resident whose 42nd District includes much of the Coachella Valley, from La Quinta going west—for negotiating a bipartisan deal to extend California’s cap-and-trade program, an environmental policy Schwarzenegger helped create to curb global warming by forcing companies to pay for emitting greenhouse gases. Schwarzenegger called the deal “a fantastic way to move forward.”

If the Republican Party will go in that direction, then we will have an increase in the membership of the Republican Party,” Schwarzenegger said. “Because this is what the people want us to do.”

The comment illuminated a vast schism among California Republicans, who are divided over how to bring their shrinking party back to relevancy. The very reason Schwarzenegger called Mayes the “future of the Republican party”—his work on climate change—was what ultimately cost him his leadership post. Most of his fellow Republicans voted against the cap-and-trade bill, even though it was backed by traditional GOP interests including oil companies and the Chamber of Commerce. Republican activists saw Mayes’ support for a program that adds costs for businesses and their consumers as a betrayal of GOP values. They turned up the pressure until he was forced in late August to resign. Schwarzenegger, by contrast, saw a modern Republican taking pragmatic steps to broaden the party’s appeal in a state where voters overwhelmingly support policies that address global warming.

Mayes’ ouster shows how hard it is for California Republicans to embrace a more moderate stance. A decade ago, Schwarzenegger famously said California Republicans were “dying at the box office,” because hard-right politics appealed to so few people in an increasingly diverse state. Since then, the GOP has slipped even further. Today just 26 percent of California voters are registered Republicans, and internal polling Mayes highlighted shows that 7 percent of state Republicans are considering abandoning the party because of its stance on climate change. The GOP holds only one-third of the seats in the Legislature—too few to be of any consequence on most issues—and a Republican hasn’t won a statewide contest in California since Schwarzenegger’s re-election in 2006.

“We have one of two options,” Mayes said during a recent interview in his Capitol office. A stack of books on the table included a collection of Christian prayers and photos from the Civil Rights Movement. On the wall hung a Teddy Roosevelt quote: “Dare mighty things.”

“We can either convert individuals to become Republicans, or we can reflect California values and as a party begin to move toward Californians. What we’ve been doing for the last 20 years is not converting Californians to our ideas. We’ve been repelling them, and we haven’t been reflecting Californians; we’ve become more insular and ideologically pure. And both of those are not winning strategies.”

Donald Trump’s victory last year, campaigning against climate policy and immigration, made it harder for Mayes to convince fellow Republicans that moderation was the key to electoral success. Even though Trump was trounced in California, he won the highest office in the land by appealing to the far right.

Mayes’ cap-and-trade vote in July was the tipping point for conservative activists who wanted him out, but it was not the first time Mayes had tried to craft a different image for California Republicans. Earlier this year, he took criticism from the right after the Assembly Republican caucus honored gay-rights icon Harvey Milk in a social media post.

During almost two years as leader, Mayes brought his caucus to a homeless shelter and spoke often about California’s soaring poverty rate. He wrote a bill (still pending) that would give welfare recipients incentive grants for completing their education. He negotiated with Democrats on a bill enacted last year that taxes health plans to bring in more money to provide health care for the poor. Mayes and Democratic Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon became known for their rare bipartisan bromance.

Yet Mayes is hardly a liberal sop. The son of an evangelical preacher, Mayes opposed Democrats’ plan to raise gas taxes to pay for road repairs. He voted against bills to increase the minimum wage and pay overtime to farmworkers. He earned an A+ rating from the Firearms Policy Coalition for his votes supporting gun rights.

Still, his chummy approach to Democrats didn’t fly with Republican party activists, who publicly accused him of having an extramarital affair with a former assemblywoman as the cap-and-trade vote loomed. (Mayes declined to answer questions about his personal life, other than to confirm that he is going through a divorce.) After the vote—and his participation in a bipartisan celebration in Gov. Jerry Brown’s office—the California Republican Party took the unusual step of formally urging Mayes to step down. Party leaders felt the cap-and-trade extension was both bad policy and bad politics, because in delivering Republican votes for the bill, Mayes allowed some Democrats to vote against it. The Democratic supermajority had splintered over cap and trade, with some progressives opposing it as too business-friendly, and some moderates withholding support to appease conservative voters in their swing districts.

Harmeet Dhillon, who represents California on the Republican National Committee, said Mayes was too focused on being liked by Democrats, and criticized him for handing Brown a victory by supporting cap and trade.

“We should all be bipartisan on issues that genuinely two sides can agree on. But there are no two sides to over-taxing Californians,” she said. “This is not an area where we can agree to have different shades as Republicans.”

Dhillon believes the new caucus leader, Assemblyman Brian Dahle, will be more reliably conservative. Dahle is a farmer who voted against extending cap and trade. His hometown of Bieber in Lassen County has 300 residents, and his rural district is solid Trump country.

Dahle is also known for building relationships across the aisle—he has already hosted the Democratic Assembly speaker at his home—and said Mayes’ bipartisanship makes sense in a statehouse so heavily dominated by Democrats. But Mayes “moved a little faster than the party could keep up with,” Dahle said during an interview at the Sacramento fundraiser.

“He takes huge gambles. And unfortunately, it was maybe too fast for some of the Republicans in California.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics. For more analysis by Laurel Rosenhall, visit calmatters.org/articles/category/california/politics.

Published in Politics