early and often

California Republicans Downplay Their Toxic Brand to Survive

Big Republican donor Rick Caruso discovered his inner Democrat before running for mayor of heavily Democratic Los Angeles. Photo: David Crane/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images

It’s tough being a Republican in California these days. The GOP hasn’t won a gubernatorial or U.S. Senate race in the state since 2006. Democrats appear to have an entrenched supermajority in the state legislature. And thanks to the top-two primary system that voters imposed in 2010, Republicans are no longer guaranteed a spot on general election ballots, a fact that was dramatized when two Democrats competed in the Senate general elections in 2016 and 2018. To the extent that the GOP had any optimism about changing the partisan dynamics of California politics, it was dissipated by their disappointing performance in the 2021 campaign to recall Democratic governor Gavin Newsom. Republican opposition to Newsom’s reelection this year is feeble.

Sure, there are significant pockets of Republican support in California, and in 2020, they had a bit of a comeback in U.S. House races. But even then, it involved clawing back four of seven House seats the GOP lost in a calamitous 2018 election.

But as Californians vote in their June 7 primary (since every registered voter was sent a mail ballot, votes have already been rolling in for weeks), there are three notable Republican personalities who have a chance to win in this enemy territory — but not with conventional strategies. Two of them have discarded the toxic party label and a third is downplaying it in a way that acknowledges Democratic domination. But all three are running on conservative themes that are resonating elsewhere in this midterm election, only without the loud-and-proud Republicanism.

The best known of the trio is probably billionaire developer and veteran GOP donor (and member of the board of the Ronald Reagan Library Foundation) Rick Caruso, who suddenly announced he had become a Democrat on the eve of launching his candidacy for mayor of Los Angeles. His signature developments (epitomized by the Grove) are aesthetically pleasing and orderly mixed-use commercial and residential communities that Angelenos may compare favorably to the rising crime and homelessness affecting other public spaces in their city. His stated desire to “clean up L.A.” is a quite literal appeal to the “order” part of an otherwise traditional law-and-order campaign message (he also wants to hire more police officers and in the past has been a vocal advocate of controversial “broken windows” policing strategies that often target minor crimes contributing to “disorder” rather than violent crime itself).

Thanks to his credibility on how to make living surroundings pleasant, and his enormous self-funding (he’s spent $34 million already, which is a lot for a municipal primary), he’s now favored to make the general election, likely against veteran congresswoman (and lifelong, not overnight, Democrat) Karen Bass, who will benefit from a 3-1 Democratic registration advantage in the city (offsetting Caruso’s 10-1 spending advantage). His campaign will be watched by conservatives across the country, even though most of them wish he were running as a Republican.

A second ex-Republican candidate running an even older-school law-and-order campaign is Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, who is riding a backlash to criminal-justice reform in order to challenge Democratic state Attorney General Rob Bonta. The incumbent was appointed to the position when Xavier Becerra resigned to become President Biden’s secretary of Health and Human Services; Becerra’s predecessor was Kamala Harris. So Schubert is implicitly taking on a long legacy of liberal criminal-justice policies in a state where voters are now jumpy about rising rates for certain crimes (notably murder, and in some locales, robberies).

Schubert is famous for her role in the investigation that identified and captured the so-called Golden State Killer, who last year pled guilty to 13 murders and 13 rapes back in the 1970s and 1980s. Schubert’s also from a prominent Republican family in Sacramento (her brother ran the notorious Proposition 8 ballot initiative campaign in 2008, which banned same-sex marriage in California). But Anne Marie Schubert is gay and has distanced herself from conservative positions on abortion as well. She discarded the Republican label after winning her second term as DA in 2018. However, her campaign is more classically conservative than Caruso’s. She is basically treating the little-known Bonta as a front man for the far more famous and controversial progressive DAs in San Francisco (Chesa Boudin, who faces a recall election on June 7) and Los Angeles (George Gascon, who could be recalled in November).

Her background and hard-core message have drawn strong support from law-enforcement circles, as the Los Angeles Times recently noted. “[D]ozens of California’s top law enforcement organizations have endorsed Schubert, along with the majority of the state’s 58 prosecutors.”

Schubert’s key problem on June 7 is that her otherwise shrewd switch to independent status could trip her up before she can make it to the general election. Bonta is the only Democrat in the AG race, but there are two actual, non-crypto Republicans, one of whom (former federal prosecutor Nathan Hochman) has been endorsed by the state GOP. Schubert needs to get past Hochman before trying to unite independents and Republicans (and some more conservative Democrats) against Bonta in November.

Being shanked on his right flank on June 7 will not be a problem for the third unconventional GOP candidate in a California statewide race, controller candidate Lanhee Chen, the only one of the trio running as a self-identified Republican. Going into this race, he was probably better known in Washington than in California: He was the highly influential policy director for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. But he grew up in California and now teaches at Stanford. His pitch to voters is that a totally Democratic-dominated state government specifically needs a Republican in the fiscal watchdog role of controller. In other words, he’s offering a “Horatius at the Bridge” self-description that implicitly depends on his Republican buddies losing every other election in sight. He also cleverly argues that the controller gig should be made nonpartisan in the future and refuses to say whether he voted for Donald Trump in 2020. What gives his message a lift are widespread concerns over alleged waste and corruption in the spending of federal COVID-19 stimulus dollars, and a general sense that California’s legislature is a bit punch-drunk with bountiful revenues.

While Chen needs some nonpartisan street cred if he expects to win in November, his path to a top-two finish in June is smoothed by the fact that four significant Democrats are running (incumbent Democrat Betty Yee is term-limited). The state party has endorsed Board of Equalization member and progressive stalwart Malia Cohen, but the more centrist state senator Steve Glazer has some support, as does Los Angeles City controller Ron Galperin and heavily self-funded tech executive Yvonne Yiu. The table is set for Chen to make it to November, but if he does he’ll have to double down on the implicit message that Democratic voters need a Republican jerk like him to keep lawmakers from running wild.

There will be other story lines for California Republicans this year. There should be a modest pro-GOP wave in turnout and voter preferences that will help its belabored U.S. House candidates navigate a new map engineered by California’s authentically citizen-run redistricting commission. And it’s very likely the next Speaker of the U.S. House will be Bakersfield Republican Kevin McCarthy (replacing San Francisco’s Nancy Pelosi). Thanks to the top-two system, we won’t know a lot of winners on June 7, and even the hints we get could be obscured a bit by the low turnout primaries in California usually attract (which seems to be even lower than usual in early voting by mail).

But keep an eye on Caruso, Schubert, and Chen on June 7. They may teach new lessons in how to run as a stealth Republican in blue states.

More on the 2022 Midterms

See All
California Republicans Downplay Their Toxic Brand to Survive