Once upon a time, in a version of America far, far away, the Republican Party did reliably well in the state of California. So well, in fact, that in every presidential election between 1968 and 1988, California chose a Republican.
California was not just a Republican-leaning state in those years. It was midwife to the birth of modern American Conservatism, as a new strain of ultra-individualist, pro-business and socially conservative politics came to be in a country which was beginning to sour on Big Government Liberalism. The Sunshine State was the political nursery of Richard Nixon, and then, even more significantly, of Ronald Reagan. It was Reagan who, in 1966, scored the first big victory for a new conservatism when he succeeded in winning California’s governorship.
In the midst of national divisions, California was the breeding ground for a confrontational, tough Right-wing politics. It was Reagan who set the police on student protesters at UC Berkeley. When he reached the presidency in 1980, it was the culmination of a journey which started in his home state.
No part of California stood for Reagan Republicanism more than affluent Orange County, home to sprawling suburbs and gated communities between Los Angeles and San Diego. Reagan himself famously proclaimed the O.C. ‘where the good Republicans go before they die’. A land of golf courses and swimming pools, Orange County, particularly exclusive Newport Beach, was exactly the kind of well-off and college-educated area where the Republicans then thrived.
That was then. But the past twenty years has seen a remarkable switch-around of electoral coalitions in the US. Just take the factor of education. As recently as 2002, college graduates leant slightly towards the GOP in party identification. But already by 2015, Pew Research Center figures found that Democrats outnumbered Republicans 49-42% among those with a college degree or some postgraduate education.
In turn, white working-class voters, once a Democratic constituency, have been moving to the right. This process first produced results with the rise of Reagan Democrats in the 1980s: working class voters who were culturally alienated from liberal Democrats. In 2016, it was voters of the same ilk, fearing social change and the effects of globalization, who came out for Donald Trump, especially in Rust Belt states like Michigan.
The transformation in American voting patterns enabled Trump’s 2016 victory by destroying the ‘blue wall’ of Midwestern states which were supposedly Democratic by default. Yet it has also opened up opportunities for the Democrats to snatch away more suburbs from the GOP, continuing the gains they made in 2018. Now, the Donkey Party is eyeing up possible victories in the suburbs of Dallas and Houston, as well as suburban seats from Georgia to Pennsylvania.
When in the last midterms the Democratic blue wave swept the House of Representatives, it astounded the political world by including Orange County’s red districts in its spoils. California had not been Republican for years and years, but even in this now bluest of states, the O.C. had remained a bastion of Conservatism. Already despondent Californian Republicans were thrown into an even deeper depression.
They have every reason to be worried. California is now more than ever a one-party state: solidly Democrat. More importantly, there is a belief that, where California goes, America eventually follows. What happened in Orange County is, on a microcosmic scale, a sign of the death of the national GOP in the suburbs which once sustained it.
Intelligent Republicans therefore know that they must address their decline in this moneyed corner of the West Coast and similar districts across the nation. This is even more important considering the ever-increasing likelihood that Donald Trump will lose badly in November. If that happens, the party will have to reappraise their coalition: a coalition which attained only a narrow victory in 2016 anyway.
Why, then, did the citizens of Orange County abandon their party?
A first, obvious reason is the President. The wealthy areas of America which were once the backbone of Republicanism never needed a brash loudmouth as their president. Donald Trump is many things, but he is not a ‘Country Club Republican’. When such a character snatched the party nomination, it signalled that the Republicans were moving in an angrier, more discontented direction. Upper-middle class conservatives, however, were not particularly angry. Their politics has never been populist.
The transformation of the Republicans in four years from the party of Mitt Romney to the party of Donald Trump has hurt them in suburbs such as these.
But that is far from being the whole story. Even more significant is demographic change. Like most of California, Orange County has become increasingly diverse. It now has higher numbers of Hispanics. The Latin Community is now 21% of the electorate there, up by more than a third from 2016. What was once a very white corner of the state is no longer so white. This doesn’t have to mean a more Democratic county. Yet, with a racist President in the White House, the GOP is handicapped in any efforts to reach out to growing minority voter groups in an ever-changing state.
Third, there is the continuing trend of formerly Republican women, disgusted at the misogynist Trump, fleeing the party to support Democrats. A 2018 Guardian profile of CA-48, the House district which encompasses Newport Beach, still a reliably Republican part of the O.C., discovered the phenomenon of wealthy women who hated Trump and were planning to support the Democratic candidate Harley Rouda. That year, suburban women were a driving force behind the blue wave in Congress. In Southern California, it was no different.
On top of all this, there is the Republican Party’s talent for including extremists in the ranks of its candidates for office. CA-48 might have been a winnable district for the GOP, even in the difficult year of 2018, were it not for long-term incumbent Rep. Dana Rohrabacher. A close ally of Vladimir Putin, Rohrabacher has raised ‘dinosaur flatulence’ in the context of climate change, and has been ridiculed on Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Who Is America?”. Running against the centrist, level-headed former Republican Rouda, Rohrabacher was a weak candidate.
Rouda’s victory points to how much modern American politics has become a question of style. Rouda, a businessman who gave $1,000 to John Kasich’s presidential campaign, was the perfect candidate because he is in many ways what the Republican Party used to be. It was the careful strategy of the Democrats in 2018 to choose moderate candidates for suburban seats. If the Republicans want those seats back, they can start by changing their optics. Middle class districts of satisfied professionals demand respectable candidacies. Narrow, partisan campaigns simply will not win back the suburbs.
Rohrabacher is not running this year, and the Republican candidate for CA-48 Michelle Steel is a stronger choice. Yet, especially with the Coronavirus pandemic raging, the economy tanking and Trump’s tweeting, winning back California’s 48th district and the rest of Orange County seems a tall task indeed for the Republicans this year. The electoral facts on the ground won’t help: these districts are now the Democrats’ to lose. Since 2018, CA-48’s nine percent Republican voter registration lead has narrowed to just five.
If they are in as much trouble nationwide as polls suggest, it will be an imperative for the GOP to examine closely what they have been doing so wrong here. America is an ever-changing, ever diversifying country. Yet in recent years it has been as if the Republican Party is willfully ignoring evidence of change in their traditional backyard. Trump’s 2016 win might have given some conservatives the false impression that they could ignore the new electoral reality in suburbs like Newport Beach. 2020 could be the final wake-up call.