Here in Orange County, we Republicans bore the brunt of the public repudiation of Donald Trump, but for the past several years we have sowed the seeds of our own defeat.
Many party activists have long said if we could only rid our party of the RINOs “Republicans in Name Only”, we could win. Congratulations, we have driven out millions of California moderates, women, young voters, Hispanics, Asians and educated suburbanites. They got the message and no longer wish to carry the Republican name. We now represent approximately 25% of California voters, third behind Declined to State.
Some said that if we only nominated hard right candidates such as Tim Donnelly or Travis Allen we would win. These candidates were so lacking in support they could not even make it out of the primary.
We were once clearly the party of business, but the policies of Trump and some local Republicans have alienated entire industries including real estate, road building, technology, shipping, retail, agriculture, finance and telecommunications. No wonder our candidates are underfunded. It’s hard to build a majority around coal mining.
Here in Orange County, specific actions led to the estrangement of traditional Republican voters from our party. First, in 2010 we declared that the party would not back city council candidates who accepted contributions from police or fire associations. Never mind the hypocrisy of a policy not applied to partisan candidates and widely ignored when unions made independent expenditures, this alienated our candidates from two of the most popular institutions in our communities, and groups that were traditional Republican voters. By the way, it did nothing to stem wage growth or pension liabilities.
Secondly, the party embraced a strategy of backing carpetbagger candidates who moved into cities specifically to run for office and to impose a highly partisan agenda. No place was this strategy more in evidence than Costa Mesa and the reign of error represented by Jim Righeimer. Righeimer became the poster boy of Republican politics. Costa Mesa residents however, rejected his brand of politics and the result was to turn reliably Republican Costa Mesa into a Democratic city with a new Democratic mayor.
The same carpetbagger strategy was repeated in Newport Beach with “Team Newport” and most embodied by Scott Peotter, another party hack from Irvine who moved into Newport just to run for office. After four years of turmoil, one of the most Republican cities in the county rejected Peotter by more than 56%, this was three points more than Dana Rohrabacher’s margin in the city.
Think how much stronger our Republican congressional and assembly candidates would have been if the party had not been strongly behind candidates utterly unacceptable to Republican voters at the city level.
The problem is that we as a party devalued sound leadership and problem solving in favor of a partisan agenda strong on posturing and slogans, and wholly lacking in results that improve the quality of life of our residents.
Partisan Republican candidates denied climate change, opposed necessary public works expenditures and supported fiscally irresponsible, special interest initiatives. This is not what voters, Democrat or Republican want from their city council representatives.
As we begin the task of rebuilding after the election debacle, let me suggest some ideas that would help us regain the confidence of the public.
First, let’s constrain partisanship to the state and federal government. There is no Republican or Democrat way to pave a street or plan a new subdivision. Local officials should be encouraged to make the right decision for their community, not some ideologically driven, one size fits all formula.
Second, let’s eliminate party endorsements in city council races, particularly where two Republicans face each other. This will help party unity for our top of the ticket candidates and will keep the party out of issues where Republican voters disagree. In reality, the party endorsement has become a vehicle for special interests to fund candidates without disclosure and often circumventing local contribution limits. Let’s put an end to this. It will also end the Star Chamber inquisition by the central committee members of our city council candidates where out of town activists back our candidates into untenable positions.
Third, let’s reward candidates who broaden the party through addition, not subtraction. Growing up in Long Beach, Republicans were always the minority party, but our candidates including George Deukmejian and Dan Lungren reached out to unions, minorities, and even local Democratic office holders to build a winning majority. We should reward candidates who do this, not penalize them.
Fourth, let’s recognize that local issues are local issues. It’s the voters in Stanton who should decide if the city sales tax is raised, not some rich guys in Newport Beach meddling in their election for sport. Anaheim should decide if condos and apartments should be built in the parking lot of Anaheim Stadium, not some wealthy high density activist living in Corona del Mar.
Fifth, let recognize that local issues do not have a partisan divide. In Newport Beach the strongest opposition to high density development and traffic comes from conservative Republican voters. Candidates who are listening to the community will get it right, those in the echo chamber of the central committee will not.
Now more than ever, we need a big tent Republican Party with a diversity of viewpoints and a broad welcoming agenda. The road back for Republicans leads through a new way of thinking about local elections.
Keith Curry, former Mayor of Newport Beach and former Director of the Concordia University Center for Public Policy. He has been a Republican activist for more than fifty years. The opinions are his own.
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