California GOP: Shutout in 2010, apocalypse in 2012?

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California’s struggling economy, downward-spiraling fiscal position and ongoing legislative gridlock would have seemed to be fertile ground for the voter revolt that swept across the country in November.

Yet, with the greatest enthusiasm gap in recent memory favoring the GOP heading into Election Day 2010, California Republicans were shut out of every statewide office, failed to gain any new Congressional seats, and actually lost ground in the state legislature at a time when the GOP experienced historic state legislative gains nationwide.

There are a host of theories concerning the GOP’s miserable showing in California this cycle.  Some blame outgoing Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Others pin the blame on Meg Whitman’s housekeeper issue and a backlash among Hispanic voters that cascaded down the ticket.  Others point to the power that public employee unions wield in the state.  Regardless of where the fingers point, the deeper issue is that the California GOP, like President Obama, just doesn’t know what to communicate, let alone to whom it should be communicating.

This communication gap threatens to become an even bigger hurdle for the Republicans in 2012 with the shift to a “jungle primary” for California state and federal elections (except U.S. President).  Under this system, all candidates for a particular office, regardless of party affiliation, compete on a single ballot to be the top two finishers facing off in the November general election.  Triggered by the passage of Proposition 14 in June 2010, this new primary system effectively removes the GOP’s guaranteed lines on California’s November ballots.

Championed by outgoing Governor Schwarzenegger and Lieutenant Governor Maldonado, both Republicans, the idea behind California’s primary switch was to reduce partisan polarization in an effort to generate more moderate candidates.  But political observer Alan Abramowitz warns that Californians can keep “dreaming” because a Kumbaya moment won’t happen — partisan polarization will likely continue to be just as divisive in the Golden State as it was under the traditional primary system.  More likely is a proliferation of third party and self-funded candidates focusing on narrow slices of the electorate — increasing the challenge to GOP candidates who will need to put together a coalition of voters in the primary rather than just relying on turning out the voters of their committed bases.

If the California GOP doesn’t improve its tactics, it may well find itself driven into minor party status in a large portion of the state.  It’s hard to believe that the state that once produced President Reagan is now a political desert for the Republican Party.

If this were Delaware or Rhode Island, we might be tempted to shrug our shoulders and focus elsewhere.  Unfortunately, California’s economic and fiscal woes are so large they will eventually ripple across the rest of the country, so a prolonged Republican collapse in the Golden State could undercut the conservative effort to put the fiscal house in order in Washington.

Ford O’Connell and Steve Pearson are the co-founders of ProjectVirginia and CivicForumPAC.