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November 8, 2012

Head to Head: What is the future of California's GOP?

THE ISSUE: When an all-time high of 18.2 million of 23.8 million voting-age Californians registered to vote in Tuesday's election, Republicans fell below 30 percent for the first time ever – to 29.3 percent of the state's electorate.

THE ISSUE: When an all-time high of 18.2 million of 23.8 million voting-age Californians registered to vote in Tuesday's election, Republicans fell below 30 percent for the first time ever – to 29.3 percent of the state's electorate.

PIA LOPEZ: Change or die

At the national level, Republican Mitt Romney put together an electoral strategy that depended on his winning three-fifths of a shrinking, aging white vote. It required Romney to do better with white voters than Dwight Eisenhower did in 1952, Ronald Reagan in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1988 – a long shot, at best.

And that strategy relied on Romney being able, essentially, to write off (or rely on others to discourage voting by) younger, more diverse pools of voters – assuming that 80 percent of nonwhites would vote for the other guy, particularly in the growing Hispanic/Latino and Asian communities.

As Ronald Brownstein presciently captured in August, with a quote from a Republican strategist, "This is the last time anyone will try to do this."

We can hope.

In California, Republicans have had 30 years to see the results of such thinking – the slow death of their party – culminating on Tuesday with Democrats capturing a two-thirds supermajority in both houses of the California Legislature. With the exception of one brief interlude in the state Senate, Republicans haven't had majorities in either house since 1970.

No Republican holds statewide office – from governor on down. And the last Republican elected to the U.S. Senate was Pete Wilson in 1982.

A one-party state is not healthy for California, or any democratic republic.

Republicans need to turn this around:

Stop being the "Party of No," primarily the party of the Grover Norquist "no tax" pledge – promising never to raise taxes under any circumstances, hardly a platform for a party that historically claimed the mantle of fiscal responsibility.

Republicans in the past used to insist that we should pay for what we get, placing a priority on balancing budgets responsibly – rejecting a "something for nothing" philosophy. Republicans simply are no longer credible on that front.

Rethink the party's anti-immigration stance that needlessly alienates large groups of Californians.

Craft an agenda for the opportunity society of the future, challenging Democrats with viable policy alternatives that get beyond the old, white base and reach the majority of the state's schoolchildren and the majority workforce of the future.

Waiting around and hoping to pounce on missteps by majority Democrats is not a strategy for winning over voters or building winning electoral coalitions.

BEN BOYCHUK: Get serious about coalition-building

Irrelevance does have some upsides.

For example, no more stern lectures from the governor or hysterical denunciations from legislative Democrats about the state GOP's unconscionable obstructionism. Nope, the Democrats own it all now.

Odds are, however, that the Democrats won't blow their newfound good fortune right away.

"We still have a divided state, between, you know, the red and the blue," Gov. Jerry Brown said Wednesday morning. "But we have a predominant Democratic majority now in the Legislature, and the challenge is: What can we do with it? Can we earn and maintain the people's trust? And that's no easy thing."

No, it isn't easy. In part because so many of Brown's fellow Democrats are thinking of all the wonderful ways they can enact their agenda with little more than an impotent yelp from Republicans to trouble them.

Now, what about those forlorn Republicans? For far too long, the state GOP was happy to maintain a minority just large enough to block the worst of Democratic legislation, stop tax hikes and that's about all.

For Republicans, it was more about positioning themselves to maintain their precarious hold on power, and not about expanding the base.

Republicans need to rethink what it is they're offering. That doesn't mean ditching first principles. Republicans needn't even abandon their social conservatism. In fact, that would be a foolish mistake. But they do need to prioritize.

Here's a thought: I've spent the past two years covering the emergence of California's parent trigger law, which lets half of parents at a failing public school petition for fundamental reforms. Fact is, parents in low-income communities such as Compton, Lynwood, Pacoima and Adelanto are fed up with an intransigent education establishment that is failing their children.

Most of these parents are what Republicans would consider "takers." Quite a few of them are on welfare and food stamps. Many of them don't even speak English. But in this narrow instance, they've taken it upon themselves, using the legal means at their disposal, to improve their circumstances.

They want better – much better – for their children. But the teachers unions – the most powerful force in the Democratic Party – have fought them every step of the way.

In short, many of them want to be "makers" – small-business owners, entrepreneurs, hard workers. These are the people Republicans need to get to know. Republicans won't win again in California until they do.

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