By Tom Elias
Some of the 25 surviving Republicans in the state Assembly – a politically endangered species in today’s California – rebelled against their minority leader this summer because he went along with Democrats in authorizing a continuation of the state’s cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gases and fight climate change.
Those Assembly members were not alone: Earlier in the year, the board of directors of the state GOP voted 13-7 to ask Redlands Assemblyman Chad Mayes to resign as the party leader in the Legislature’s lower house. His offense: Mayes wanted his party to reach out to non-Republicans now that GOP voter registration has fallen to third place in half a dozen legislative districts, behind Democrats and independents.
This represents a full-fledged party schism, with the Republican right wing led by former gubernatorial candidate Tim Donnelly and other hard-liners insisting on full-out support of President Trump and ideological purity on social issues like gun control and abortion.
The Democratic Party also has a divide. Democrats dominate voter registration as no political party ever has in California and hold every statewide elected office from governor to insurance commissioner.
While many Republicans feel some of their representatives are insufficiently conservative, a lot of Democrats believe their party is too wishy-washy, too deeply in bed with large corporate contributors and not as “progressive” as they would like.
So during party caucuses last winter, the left-wing – led by devotees of Vermont Sen. Bernard Sanders – turned out in big numbers and sent hundreds of grass roots members as delegates to the springtime state party convention where the Democrats’ longtime Los Angeles County chief Eric Bauman was narrowly elected to succeed San Francisco’s John Burton as state chair.
Richmond-based party organizer Kimberly Ellis lost that race by 57 votes out of almost 3,000 and immediately challenged the result. Party committees later affirmed Bauman’s election, but Ellis vowed a court challenge, claiming party committees were biased.
There’s also Democratic Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon of Paramount in Los Angeles County, who in early summer essentially killed a Senate-passed bill setting up a single-payer health care system for the state. His move so angered some liberals for whom that is a pet cause that they quickly made him the target of a recall effort.
And five Democratic Assembly members were targeted by full-page ads in local newspapers for being undecided for a while on a bill to create a statewide immigration sanctuary policy.
All this is in many ways the result of the Democrats’ stranglehold on state government and voter preferences. Among Democrats, there’s little sense of peril in challenging party leaders. Their voter registration numbers are so much larger than Republicans’ and their success among independents is so much greater than the GOP’s that they have no worries about party splits somehow producing Republican victories.
In fact, the most dramatic races now shaping up for governor and other statewide offices pit Democrats against one another. For example, no Republican has yet indicated interest in opposing Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s reelection or in getting into a race to replace her if she retires at 84. But other Democrats are in.
Nor do Republicans act as if they have much prospect, or even hope, to improve their position here during the Trump presidency. So Ronald Reagan’s “11th Commandment” – “Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican” – is all but forgotten. The essence of many Republicans’ approach: If you’re going to lose anyhow, you might as well be pure.
So far, few Democrats show signs of worry about their split, a leftover from last year’s bitter primary battle between Sanders and Hillary Clinton.
But some Republicans, including Mayes, want to improve their party’s position. “We can remain in denial and continue to lose elections, influence and relevance,” he wrote in a recent essay. “Or we can…articulate our principles in a way that resonates with a changing California.”
The party’s nominal top-ranking officeholder, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, added that Republicans “must focus first and foremost on fixing California” and “regain (its) role as the party of freedom.”
None of these party schisms would exist if state Democrats were not so dominant. But one-party rule creates movements toward ideological purity in both parties, and no one can be sure where that might lead.