The decline of California’s Republican Party, as underscored by the most recent voter registration data, is a truly remarkable, even historic, phenomenon.
And it’s not over yet.
Republicans dominated the state’s politics for much of the 20th century – personified by Ronald Reagan – but began to fade as the century closed.
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The new registration report shows Republicans declining to just 25.97 percent of the state’s 19.4 million potential voters, 9 percentage points below the party’s nearly 35 percent share in 2000.
Oddly, however, Democrats didn’t gain. In fact, they’ve dropped about a half-point to 44.77 percent since 2000. The big increase came in voters without a party preference, from 14.36 percent in 2000 to 24.51 percent in 2017. By next year’s general election, they might outnumber Republicans.
Except for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s offbeat governorship, Republicans haven’t been viable for major statewide office for two decades and haven’t won the state’s presidential votes in nearly three decades – after dominating presidential elections during the post-World War II era.
Next year’s elections don’t offer a realistic hope for a Republican resurgence, especially since the GOP will carry a very unpopular President Donald Trump as baggage.
It’s entirely possible that under the top-two primary system, contests for governor and other statewide offices will be Democrat vs. Democrat affairs, and half of the state’s 14 GOP-held congressional seats are potentially at risk. The GOP would be lucky to hold its less than a third of legislative seats, but even so, is totally frozen out of any meaningful voice.
So why did Republicans plunge from dominance to rough parity and finally into the abyss of virtual irrelevance?
A popular theory is that when then-Gov. Pete Wilson and other Republicans embraced Proposition 187, a 1994 measure aimed at eliminating public benefits for undocumented immigrants, they sowed seeds of decline by alienating the fast-growing Latino community.
It was and is a factor since more than 25 percent of Californians were born in another country.
But the GOP also lost ground in middle-class suburbs as rising environmental consciousness and hot-button issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion turned baby boomers, Gen Xers and millennials against the party.
In addition to these megatrends, the shift to a post-industrial economy played a role. When the Southern California aerospace industry collapsed after the end of the Cold War in the 1990s, for instance, the region experienced a massive out-migration of skilled workers who may have been registered Democrats but often voted as “Reagan Democrats.”
Coupled with continued in-migration from other countries, the outflow shifted Los Angeles County, with a quarter of the state’s population, from roughly neutral in top-of-the-ticket elections to overwhelmingly Democratic.
Republicans continue to dominate the state’s rural regions and do fairly well in local governments – even in otherwise blue communities. But the decline in registration indicates that they haven’t hit bottom yet.