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The Rebirth of American Conservatism Needs to Begin in California

The California Republican Party is dead. Long live the California Republican Party.

After decades of the GOP crushing the economy of California with gridlock and a freeze on raising taxes, Democrats took control of the legislature with a supermajority in 2012. They immediately raised taxes and, like magic, the largest state with the largest economy suddenly found itself swimming in cash and low unemployment. 

And California Republicans found themselves out of work:

Republicans now hold just seven seats in the state’s 53-member congressional delegation after what shaped up to be a devastating midterm for the party. (That number will drop to six if Representative David Valadao, a Central Valley Republican, loses to T.J. Cox in the one still undecided district, as now appears likely).

The Election Day losses are being described by Republicans in cataclysmic terms. They have set off an anguished debate about what the party stands for, how to get back into the political game, and how strongly to stick by Mr. Trump.

The state party was wiped out just as badly, with Democrats holding 75% of the seats in the State Assembly, something they haven't done in over 100 years. They also took all the statewide offices leaving Republicans nothing but bitter regret. 

It's not like California conservatives suddenly stopped being conservative but it's clear that the national party has shifted too far to the right. Call California a bunch of coastal liberal elite blablabla all you want, the fact remains that the white nationalist rhetoric of Trump's Republican Party doesn't work on the West Coast and the dog whistle white supremacy of the party before that didn't fare much better.

So is the GOP dead in California? Yes. And no. Or at least it doesn't have to be. 

I've made this argument before. Conservatism is not synonymous with racism. It just isn't. The two tend to go together because reactionaries have found it easy to sell hate to advance their agenda but that's a marriage of convenience. There is literally nothing about being for slow walking necessary social change or controlling the breadth and scope of government that says "I have to hate people with brown skin." I am not the only person to make note of this.

“I have been preaching that guys, you can’t just have a message to white voters,” said Jim Brulte, the state Republican Party chairman. “Because the demographics are rapidly changing.”“The losses in the congressional seats continue a trend that began in 1996,” he said. “In 1994, we had 25 Republican Congress members. A decade later we had 20. A decade later we had 14. And now we are going to end up with seven or six.”

Once Republicans let go of the racism crutch, as well as their addiction to corporate money, they have an opportunity to rebuild the party according to actual conservative principals in a state with a rather large conservative base. It wouldn't be easy. They would have to break with the machine built by the Kochs to advance the right's extremely non-conservative agenda. They would almost have to become a party unto themselves but California is big enough and rich enough to do it. If they started delivering wins, the national party would have to suck it up and deal with them much like they put up with the Freedom Caucus.

And why not try it? There are issues they can differ with Democrats on without resorting to Newt Gingrich's politics of personal destruction. In a state where Republicans are badly outnumbered, relearning to compromise and selling that ability to voters as a reason to vote Republican would be a massive win. Rebuilding in a state where you have to earn votes because you can't suppress them is exactly what the GOP needs. Republicans are reaching the limits of gerrymandering and voter suppression. They can either go back to winning the popular vote or dwindle away to a regional party over the next several election cycles because they have nothing to offer.

Right now, the GOP as a party exists to break our government and nothing more. This is why when they controlled all three branches, Republicans couldn't pass any laws for two years except tax cuts for the rich. This inability to do anything positive is part of the reason they were so severely punished in the midterms.

Personally, I would be happier if the GOP folded up their tent and left the state altogether. The liberal and progressive parts of the state Democratic Party could split and there's your two parties. It would be a far more effective and rational range of political opinion. It's more or less how the rest of the industrialized world is positioned and only the GOP stands in the way of us having a sane debate over things like gun control, climate change, healthcare, realistic tax levels, and a living wage (for starters).

But California is not the rest of the nation and while we cannot hope to erase the GOP in the way the Golden State has, we can hope the state party might finally decide to reinvent itself as a party of ideas instead of racist dogma. If conservatives not beholden to the GOP agenda of tax cuts and corporatism see a way forward through the demographic doom the party has chained itself to, they might just take it and that would be better for everyone.