Few things gall California Republicans more than realizing they hold just 14 of this state’s 53 seats in Congress. That’s only 26 percent of California’s representatives, while the opposition Democrats, with a mere 14 percent more registered voters, hold 39 seats, or about 74 percent.
The GOP had a big chance last year to remedy this, targeting vulnerable Democrats who won their offices by narrow margins in President Obama’s 2012 reelection landslide.
But Republicans failed. Yes, they ran plenty of close races, but in the end lost every one. Now it appears they’ll have to wait at least until 2018 before there’s much possibility Californians might become a significant part of the GOP’s big overall majority in Congress.
How did Republicans blow the chance to oust vulnerable Democrats like Scott Peters of San Diego, Julia Brownley of Ventura County, John Garamendi in the Sierra Nevada foothills, Jim Costa in the Fresno area, Ami Bera in the Sacramento suburbs and Jerry McNerney in the Stockton area?
The missed opportunity was partly because of the candidates they ran and partly because the national party didn’t fully support what candidates it had.
The survival of Peters in a San Diego district bordering on Mexico was prototypical. He was opposed by Carl DeMaio, a former city councilman and longtime crusader for tightening public employee pensions. Peters’ district was ripe for Republican plucking, having gone for Republican Mayor Kevin Faulconer by an overwhelming 62 percent in his 2013 special election victory.
But even though DeMaio ran for mayor in 2012 and had plenty of prior public exposure, he was done in when two of his former staff members accused him of sexual harassment, a claim debunked months after the election. What could have been, maybe should have been, an easy GOP pickup instead became a 6,000-vote reelection for Peters.
With the district’s populace growing steadily more Latino and the strong likelihood that turnout in 2016 will be well above the roughly 24 percent of last year – if only because the presidency will at stake – Peters could have a much easier reelection next year.
It’s much the same for Costa, who was blindsided and almost knocked off by a Republican unknown last year, and for McNerney, who also squeaked by narrowly against a little-known hopeful. If the national party had recruited major figures against them or had simply financed those who did run, those could have been two pickups. But the GOP blew it.
Now Costa and McNerney, along with the other Democrats who won by slim margins, figure to get less of a challenge next year for the same reasons Peters will be safer. All will have the advantages of several more years of incumbency, too, to establish ties and loyalties throughout their districts.
In many ways, the Republican ineptitude in making congressional inroads in California is emblematic of how they’ve mismanaged things in this state for years, their only respite in decades being the Arnold Schwarzenegger era, which was mostly a product of his star power as a movie muscleman.
The party was proud last year to prevent Democrats from achieving two-thirds supermajorities in both houses of the state Legislature, a dominance they enjoyed sporadically in the two years after their big Obama-led wins of 2012. But that’s like a football team rejoicing because it narrowly beat the oddsmakers’ point spread, while still losing by three touchdowns. The GOP is far short of the numbers it will need to have any major impact on state policy in any area, and there’s little chance it will change anything soon.
The party’s problem is simple: In order to win in most parts of California, it will have to become more tolerant of undocumented immigrants and same-sex marriage, more environmentally conscious and less hardline in opposing changes to the Proposition 13 property tax rules.
But making any such revisions would also alienate the party from its hard-core backers, and might deprive it of even its recent levels of support.
So the GOP in California is in a bind, and so far has shown few signs of finding its way out of this long-term jam.