Republican Party keeps shrinking, but is it losing power?

By Anne C. Mulkern | 03/07/2016 01:10 PM EST

Orange County has long been California’s Republican stronghold, a place where GOP voters outnumber others. That’s starting to change.

Orange County has long been California’s Republican stronghold, a place where GOP voters outnumber others. That’s starting to change.

Republicans still represent the largest portion of all county voters. But new voters increasingly are choosing another option.

The GOP represented 23 percent of all new Orange County registrations in the period since the 2014 general election, according to an analysis from Political Data Inc., a nonpartisan group. That compares with 31 percent for Democrats and 47 percent for all the other parties. The biggest of that group is called "No Party Preference," or NPP, a California option for independent.


The trend dates back almost a decade. Every two-year cycle since the one ending in 2008, the GOP has been the third choice behind Democratic and the other catch-all group that includes NPP.

It’s part of a shift statewide as the size of the California Republican Party shrinks. A February report from the secretary of state’s office showed that through the 2014 cycle, voters identifying as Republican fell to 28 percent from 28.9 percent for the previous cycle.

The portion of GOP voters statewide has shrunk every election cycle since 2006, when it was 34.2 percent of the electorate.

"In terms of the big picture, things are catastrophic" for Republicans in California, said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles. "The problem is a combination of demographics and ideology, sort of a toxic combination of those two."

The Republican Party in California is not quite as conservative as it is nationwide, but it is "way more conservative than the sort of the center of political gravity in California," Sonenshein said.

"California has become a younger, more Latino, more Asian-American, more Democratic state by a lot. Each generation it gets more so," he added. "Those people sort of disproportionately hold views that are not consistent with the Republican platform."

Orange County is just one place where the shift is playing out. Kern County, the state’s hub of oil and gas drilling, sees the same trend among new voters. For the period since the end of 2014, Republicans represented 24 percent of new voters versus 28 percent for Democrats and 48 percent for the other groups that include NPP, Political Data said.

In San Diego County, home to large numbers of current and retired military, 15.9 percent of new voter registrations in the 2014 cycle picked Republican, and 28.9 percent identified as Democratic, Political Data said. In that county, 55 percent chose NPP or one of the smaller parties.

There’s disagreement about what the slide means for the GOP. Republican voters turn out more strongly than do Democrats, particularly in years when there’s not a presidential election. That’s allowed the GOP to outperform its registration numbers, said Paul Mitchell, vice president at Political Data.

"Primary and gubernatorial elections sort of save Republicans, in making them maintain a relevance," Mitchell said.

Both parties in decline

Mike Madrid, a Republican consultant, said the Democratic Party also is losing numbers. And four to six years after registering as a Democrat, he said, many voters move to the NPP category.

The No Party Preference voter votes Democratic about 80 percent of the time in California, Madrid said.

Statewide, Republicans still rank slightly above NPP, which at the end of 2014 had 23.6 percent of the statewide voter total. But the NPP group could be larger than the GOP for all of California by the 2020 election, Madrid said.

"California is at the forefront of this very strong anti-establishment" bent, Madrid said. He added that voters are saying, "’The fix is in, we’ve had it with both of you.’ We’re seeing it play out nationally at the presidential level."

Statewide, Democratic Party registrations since 2014 make up 43 percent of voters. They’ve fallen by a fraction of a percent each cycle since 2008, when they boomed. At the end of that presidential election year, Democrats constituted 44.5 percent of the electorate.

The NPP group has grown each cycle. It was 23.6 percent in the 2014 cycle, up from 18.8 in 2006, the California secretary of state data said.

"It’s a very big problem," Madrid said. "It’s a huge driving factor, why California’s politics are the way they are."

It makes it more difficult to ascertain where each political party is on issues, Madrid said. For example, within the Democratic Party, there’s a division on environmental rules. A group of moderates has resisted approving actions that they see as anti-business or that will drive up costs for consumers.

"Fifteen years ago that would be a Republican versus Democrat battle," Madrid said. "Now it’s an all-Democrat battle. The issues matrix for Democrats has dramatically expanded," and a kind of Republican voting bloc is emerging within the Democratic Party, he said.

Meanwhile, some in California’s GOP are taking a different approach from the national party on energy and environment issues. San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer (R) backed a Climate Action Plan that has a goal of achieving 100 percent renewable energy citywide by 2035. The city pledges to reduce its carbon emissions, increase the water and energy efficiency of buildings, and increase use of mass transit.

Faulconer has been named as a potential candidate for governor in 2018. His office didn’t respond to interview requests. Last year he told The Sacramento Bee, "I’m happy about what I’m doing."

"It’s harder to go against the party orthodoxy on an issue like immigration than it is on climate change," Sonenshein said. "If you’re going to take a progressive position on climate change, that can only help you."

He added that "environmental, that’s an opening [Republicans] should probably push further, because" in California "it’s pretty much a consensus issue in a lot of ways and they need to sort of catch up with the train."

Rebuilding ‘from the ground up’

A spokeswoman for the California Republican Party said it’s working to turn the GOP’s standing around, in part by finding appealing candidates.

"We started talking about this in 2014, rebuilding the party from the ground up," said Kaitlyn MacGregor, state GOP communications director. "One of our goals for this year is to work really closely with our county parties … to help them help identify good candidates for local and legislative offices."

Those include school boards and city council elections, she said, with the hope that those people might later run for the state’s Legislature or other office.

Sonenshein said that’s a smart approach.

"Instead of aiming for a frontal assault on the Democratic castle, they’re going to the soft spot," he said. "Democrats don’t always have the edge in local elections."

Local elections such as for school boards and sometimes city councils are nonpartisan, which tend to be better for Republicans, Sonenshein said.

"It’s a great way to develop future candidates who have some appeal," he said. "It’s probably all they can do right now."

In some local races, Republicans have had success running Asian-American candidates, Sonenshein said. GOP member Janet Nguyen in 2014 won a state Senate seat after defeating Democrat Jose Solorio 58.1 percent to 48.9 percent in Orange County.

"That was a real success," Sonenshein said. "You go where you can where you have some opportunities. I think that’s what they’re doing.

"There are smart people working on how to get out of the box that they’ve got themselves in," he said of Republicans.

MacGregor noted that the GOP in 2014 won enough seats in the Legislature to remove the two-thirds supermajority that Democrats briefly held.

Republicans might win if they’re willing to attack the party’s brand, Sonenshein said. Another option is to run as independents. In a U.S. House race for a California seat, independent Bill Bloomfield in 2012 took on Rep. Henry Waxman (D). Waxman prevailed 54 percent to 46 percent, but it was a tough race, Sonenshein said.

"That’s the kind of thing that can really put some fear into a Democrat candidate," Sonenshein said, because an independent could attract Republican and Democratic voters.

‘They don’t have any bench’

Some in the Democratic camp believe liberals will continue to dominate in the Golden State. Right now no statewide offices are held by a Republican, and the GOP is short of competitive candidates, said Garry South, a longtime Democratic strategist.

"They don’t have any bench here," South said. "They don’t even have a three-legged stool."

There already are several Democratic declared and potential candidates for governor in 2018, including Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, ex-State Controller Steve Westly, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and state Treasurer John Chiang. Billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer has expanded the issues he’s working on, leading some to wonder whether he’s building a portfolio to run (Greenwire, Nov. 30, 2015).

In addition to San Diego Mayor Faulconer, the other Republican mentioned as a potential governor candidate is Ashley Swearengin, mayor of Fresno.

Asked about 2018, MacGregor said that the party is focused on 2016. The GOP is working to drive turnout for the primary in June, she said. The state has open primaries, meaning that the top two finishers advance to the general election, regardless of political party.

Sonenshein said it’s a challenge for Republicans to triumph statewide.

"Right now the partisan edge is so big that it’s hard to know how a statewide candidate is going to do very well," he said. "At this point people are just in the habit of voting Democrat for a lot of these offices."

Madrid agreed it might be tough for a Republican to win the governor’s mansion in 2018.

But he said Republicans are winning at the local level. Mayors in the state now are 45 percent Republican and 41 percent Democratic, he said. The GOP also is gaining with county supervisor seats.

Those victories are granting a different kind of power, Madrid said. Local city council and county board of supervisor officials serve on some air and water agencies, so power on those is turning. The South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD), which oversees air quality in Los Angeles, Orange, and parts of Riverside and San Bernardino counties, just became Republican-controlled. AQMD is the largest air district in the country.

The agency board voted 7-6 on Friday to oust Chief Officer Barry Wallerstein, who had been there for 18 years (see related story).

"They’re winning at the local level in very, very strong numbers," Madrid said of Republicans. "The control of all of these agencies lies in the balance."