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The California GOP remains committed to its decline.
California Assemblymember Megan Dahle’s election committee transferred $40,500 to the state Republican party on April 22; two days later, the California State Republican Party endorsed her husband, State Senator Brian Dahle, as its candidate for governor. The timing of this transfer gave rise to suspicions that Megan Dahle purchased the party’s endorsement for her husband, but this is just one of many controversies in a state party that has never been more divided or more impotent.
The electorate’s share of Republican voters in California, at 23.9 percent of registered voters, has never been lower. This decline has been unrelenting; from 34.9 percent in 2002 to 34.6 percent in 2006, to 30.1 percent in 2010, to 28.6 percent in 2014, to 25.3 percent in 2018.
The weakness of California’s Republican party is reflected in every metric that matters. Its representation in California’s congressional delegation is 10 out of 53, which at 19 percent does not even reflect voter registration totals. Similar underachievement plagues their showing in the state legislature: Republicans number 19 out of 80 seats in the assembly, and 9 out of 40 seats in the state senate. Of the eight higher state offices—governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, treasurer, controller, superintendent of public instruction, and insurance commissioner—not one is held by a Republican. Every one of these office holders are Democrats. For those Californians who recall that the state was cherry red through the election of George Bush in 1988, this leftward turn is cause for endless regret.
The endorsement of Brian Dahle by the California Republican party might therefore be considered irrelevant. His chances of winning are zero. The decision to endorse Dahle does have consequences, however. The party passed up an unconventional but potentially transformative opportunity to expand its reach by endorsing independent candidate Michael Shellenberger, one of the most interesting political aspirants to emerge in California in many years. A former progressive environmentalist who supports nuclear power and argues that the threat of climate change catastrophe is overstated, Shellenberger has staked out contrarian positions that could have broad appeal to Californians tired of crime, high energy prices, and absurd regulations that inhibit development.
In his recent widely-acclaimed book San Fransicko, and in his campaign, Shellenberger exposed the almost criminal negligence and corrupt hidden agenda informing the Homeless Industrial Complex, whereby bureaucrats, developers, and nonprofits collect billions while homelessness just gets worse. But Shellenberger also offers solutions. He promises to construct inexpensive shelters, unlike the “supportive housing” programs where the average cost of a permanent housing apartment is now over a half-million dollars per unit. He promises to get addicts off the street into mandatory treatment, and place behavior conditions on homeless people in exchange for assistance.
Shellenberger has retained positions that doom his candidacy among social conservatives. He is pro-choice, and supports gay marriage. It’s true that the hard right prefers Dahle, a politician who lacks the charisma or vision to attract anyone outside of reliable GOP voters. The state GOP may have found a $40,500 donation a helpful incentive to endorse Dahle, but their bigger fear was selecting someone who would alienate an already alienated base. But they needn’t have worried: until the entire leadership of the state organization is replaced, the California state GOP will never get its base back. Since 2016, they have appeased their never-Trump donor base while antagonizing their grassroots, which is overwhelmingly pro-Trump. Trump’s 2020 vote count in California, at over six million, exceeded the entire number of registered GOP voters in California by nearly a million votes. By endorsing tepid candidates who don’t scare off their diminishing pool of donors, the state party officials keep themselves and a handful of consultants employed, but they do nothing to advance the interests of conservative politics in California.
Many people unfamiliar with Shellenberger point to his environmentalist credentials as a negative, until they consider his current views. In 2020 Shellenberger published Apocalypse Never, where he makes a compelling moral case for fossil fuel and exposes the catastrophic harm caused to low-income communities all over the world that are denied access to affordable energy. Shellenberger explicitly calls for more development of California’s natural gas resources and the expansion of the newest generation of nuclear power plants, which produce the most efficient form of zero-emission energy available.
Michael Shellenberger faces a hostile press and a fantastically powerful and rich Democratic political machine. But the summer of 2022 promises to be hot, parched, and expensive. Californians may be ready to dispense with familiar bromides about racial justice, equity, and environmental doom in favor of a pragmatist who offers concrete solutions to the state’s growing economic and social problems.
The sclerotic state GOP seems happy to play the part of the loyal opposition, rather than knock heads with its donors. But California voters, like the national electorate, are poised for realignment. The Democrats have become the party of established wealth, committed to chaos, division, and scarcity. There is a political void where the interests of everyday Californians lie. Too bad there is no opposition brave enough to capture it.
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