After Trump, California GOP Seeks to Reset and Rebrand

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California Republican gubernatorial candidate and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman (L), former Gov. Jerry Brown (R) and former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (C) speak during a discussion on the future of California at the Women's Conference 2010 on Oct. 26, 2010 at the Long Beach Convention Center. (Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)

There’s an old saying in politics that “you can’t beat somebody with nobody.” And at the statewide level, Republican candidates in California have pretty much been “nobodies” ... at least nobody who can win.

"There hasn't been a full-on competitive Republican candidate in California in a decade since Meg Whitman ran for governor," said Republican campaign consultant Rob Stutzman, harkening back to 2010 when the former eBay CEO challenged Jerry Brown before losing the governor’s race by 13 points.

Despite mixed results at the ballot box in November, Republicans such as Stutzman sense growing disenchantment with Gov. Gavin Newsom and some of the ideas promoted by Democrats as an opportunity they haven't had in more than a decade.

Stutzman says the current political environment, stoked by the governor’s uneven handling of the pandemic, opens the door for a Republican return to relevance. "Newsom has provided a real rallying point, organizational point for Republicans that they never had during the Jerry Brown years," he says.

To be sure, Newsom was dealt a much tougher hand than Gov. Brown. He didn’t cause the pandemic. But his handling of it — compounded by the massive failure of the state’s unemployment agency under his watch — has generated anger even among some people who voted for him.


The Hoover Institution’s Lanhee Chen, who works in Republican politics, sees a real opportunity for the party in California.

"I live in the middle of a very progressive part of California. And I talk to moms and dads every day who just don't understand why we can't get basic things right," Chen says.

California’s Republican party has been shrinking for years — it’s now just a quarter of registered voters. Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger warned about its decline at a party convention in 2007, saying, "We're dying at the box office," and urging party leaders to move toward the middle of the political spectrum.

The party rejected that advice and many eventually rejected Schwarzenegger, too, with conservatives calling him a RINO — Republican in name only.

Schwarzenegger recently returned the favor, releasing a much-watched video comparing fringe elements of the GOP who challenged Joe Biden's victory over Donald Trump to the Nazis of his youth in Austria.

Since Schwarzenegger left office in 2011, Republicans have been frozen out of statewide office so long they’ve become little more than critics. Lanhee Chen says that needs to change.

"The most important thing that Republicans can do is to articulate what it is that you're actually going to do if you're given the opportunity to lead. And that's something that I think, unfortunately, Republicans haven't been good enough at doing," Chen said.

GOP consultant Stutzman adds that the party as it stands today will require a significant upgrade in "organizational coherency" before making real gains in Sacramento.

"There's an opportunity to suggest that government could be more competently run, more efficiently," said Stutzman, who remained a Republican despite misgivings about Trump. "But, you know, we talk about the Republican Party — it's really not an entity that's organized in any way."

Chad Mayes — once the Republican leader in the Assembly — left the GOP over former President Trump, and got reelected last year as a member of no party.

"Today, the Trump Republicans own the Republican Party nationally and the Trump Republicans own the California Republican Party as well," Mayes said. "The question is, will they pivot and shift into a new direction?"

Mayes, I-Yucca Valley, thinks the party took a step in that direction recently by ditching state Senate Republican Leader Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield.

"Shannon represented the extreme part of the Republican Party, that these are the Trump supporters, the MAGA supporters and maybe even some of the QAnon conspirators," Mayes said.

The caucus replaced her with its most moderate member, state Sen. Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita, who just won reelection in an increasingly purple district in the exurbs of Los Angeles. Mayes says elevating Wilk, who is a more traditional conservative, shows Republicans are trying to rebrand the party.

"Scott understands that for the Republican Party to succeed in California, it has to begin to act and behave a lot more like what Californians believe," Mayes said. "I think that's a good development for that caucus and for the Republican Party at large," Mayes said.

CA Republicans and the Attack on the Capitol

Lanhee Chen agrees. "The Senate caucus and the Assembly caucus, I mean, their responsibility is to demonstrate an alternative vision to poor governance. And if making that change in leadership allows them to do that better, then I think that's great," Chen said.

Changing its leaders may help the party rebrand itself. But even though Republicans picked up four congressional seats in California last November, it will require more than an insider shake-up to make serious inroads with voters and make up for decades of decline.

They have a very long way to go before accumulating any real power in Sacramento.