When one considers the Republican Party’s future and electoral aspirations, California isn’t usually on the list. The Golden State has endured nearly a full generation of Democratic rule. The last time a Republican won the governorship here was in 2006, and the last time without a Hollywood celebrity helming the ticket was in 1994. The current California Senate and Assembly feature Republicans mostly as a vestigial party, representing nine of 40 and 19 of 80 members, respectively.
Nevertheless, there are promising signs that Republicans just might make a comeback in America’s wealthiest and most-populous state. The 2020 elections illuminate the possibilities — as do the Democratic Party’s missteps leading into 2022.
Looking past the tumult of the presidential race, the real story of 2020 was the remarkable Republican and conservative performance at every other level. Deep-blue California was very much part of that, with Republicans seizing three new congressional seats from Democratic opposition — including the first California-Republican win over a Democratic incumbent since 1994.
It’s worth looking at who did it, and how. In California’s 21st congressional district, David Valadao defeated the Democratic incumbent despite the district going for Biden by nearly ten points. In the sprawling San Joaquin Valley district, with its remarkable ethnic mix — it is over 70 percent Latino — diverse rural areas went remarkably conservative, mirroring a similar trend nationwide. In the 48th district, Michelle Park Steel defeated the Democratic incumbent in a coastal, urbanized, Orange County district with a strong minority presence: nearly 20 percent Asian and about 16 percent Latino. In the 39th district, my former colleague Young Kim defeated the incumbent Democrat in a district that runs mostly through Orange County and Los Angeles County. This district is remarkably mixed by ethnicity, with nearly one-third each being white, Latino, and Asian.
What’s happening here? First and foremost, we’re seeing a breaking of the ethnic balkanization and bloc-voting upon which Democrats nationally have pinned their hopes. Asian-American voters understand that a party whose fervent ideologues would deny their children equitable admission to educational opportunity is not for them. Latino voters understand that the cultural values espoused by a progressive movement unfriendly to religion and family are not their own. African-American voters understand that the politics of job destruction and high taxes are exactly the opposite of what their families and communities need.
In other words, the so-called permanent Democratic majority is impermanent because American minority voters are, in the end, just like all the other American voters. They’re rational actors who accurately perceive their own interests.
We’re seeing something else, too: Republican candidates who don’t fit the party’s traditional mold of older white men. The fact that both Congresswoman Steel and Congresswoman Kim are Korean Americans in heavily Asian districts, or that Congressman Valadao is of Portuguese descent in a majority-Latino district, is not incidental to their victories. One’s community experience and identity matter, and conservatives who can speak credibly to both of those facts are candidates who can win. The conservative appeal in this vein is distinct from the progressive. As conservatives, we don’t appeal to exclusionary in-group representation: Our message is the applicability of universal American values and principles to everyone, from everywhere, of all walks of life.
To be sure, California is still a blue state. While there are still reasons for hope, our work is unfinished. Still, if the past several years have taught us anything, it is that nothing lasts when it comes to partisan alignment. Just five years ago, who would have considered Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Georgia, or Arizona to be presidential-battleground states? Just three years ago, who would have thought a Democrat would come within three points of unseating an incumbent Republican United States senator in Texas?
California, like all those states, is not frozen in time or in place. It’s time for Republicans to read the clear signals from 2020 and get ready for 2022.
The prospects for 2022 are surprisingly bright. In addition to the 2020 outcomes, the decision by nearly all Democratic officeholders across the nation to embrace authoritarianism and paranoia as the bases for their pandemic-response policy has their own constituencies looking for common-sense alternatives. Here in California, nearly 40 million Americans have spent the past year in semi-isolation, bounded by a latticework of increasingly preposterous rules that seem to have no meaningful connection to public health. Democratic elites don’t follow them, of course — nothing has propelled Governor Gavin Newsom’s recall effort as much as his rule-breaking dinner at French Laundry — but we have to.
Everyone knows families struggling because they can’t send their children to school. Likewise, everyone knows small businesses and entrepreneurs who lost everything because they were forbidden from opening their doors. In my own family, we were denied the opportunity to properly mourn my late grandfather, because we were forbidden to gather in an outdoor cemetery for more than 15 minutes.
The coronavirus pandemic is a real emergency, of course. But most Californians no longer believe that the Democratic officeholders, from top to bottom, have real answers to it — and certainly not answers that do not destroy their lives and livelihoods. Add on to this the metastasizing progressive mania for overthrowing California and American history, and you have all the conditions for an electoral revolt.
California has always been the foundry of the American dream. That’s why my grandparents and parents, survivors of the Cambodian Genocide and proud legal immigrants, chose to make our state their home. Californians don’t want to lose that: We’ve been out front for generations, in every sphere, forging the American future and giving the other 49 states their first look at tomorrow.
If California Republicans can capture that spirit, defend California families, revive California greatness, and learn the lessons of 2020 — then come 2022, you can’t count them out. Their moment just might be now.