California Republicans: An Endangered Species?

While the once-imperiled California condor has made a striking comeback, there is another ailing bird in the state that should probably be considered for the endangered species list: California Republicans.

As the 2008 Republican presidential contenders turn their sights toward California on Feb. 5, they might want to take stock of the sorry state of the GOP in the Golden State.

Registered Republicans now constitute barely a third of the electorate in the biggest state — 34 percent — a decline from 39 percent just two decades ago.

Even in Orange County, regularly described as “the most Republican county in the U.S.,” Republican registration has fallen below 50 percent.

The Republicans haven’t controlled the state Senate since 1970. They have controlled the state Assembly for only one year — 1996 — since 1970.

In the past three general elections, Republicans have lost 20 of the 24 statewide constitutional offices up for election. In both 1998 and 2006, the GOP lost six of eight statewide offices.

In 2002, Republicans were shut out of all statewide offices for the first time since 1882 — despite a Democratic ticket led by an incumbent governor up for reelection with job approval ratings in the 30s.

Other than Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 2003 gubernatorial recall election, the only non-incumbent Republican to win any statewide office whatsoever since 1994 was a multimillionaire high-tech maven who in 2006 was elected insurance commissioner.

Republicans have lost — count ’em — seven straight U.S. Senate races in California dating back to 1992, the last four by double-digit blowouts.

In the two most recent races in 2004 and 2006, the sad sack GOP nominees didn’t even have the money to air a single spot on broadcast television — a first in the modern era for either major party.

The Republican nominee against Sen. Dianne Feinstein in ’06 ran his own campaign out of his house.

Of the 53 members of Congress from California, only 19 are Republican, the party having lost four GOP-held seats in 2000, a newly created district in 2002 and another, supposedly rock-solid, Republican seat in 2006.

Republicans have lost the past four presidential elections in California, all of them by double-digit, landslide margins.

And George W. Bush’s job approval ratings in California are below even his historic-low national standings — and only a couple of points above former Gov. Gray Davis’ numbers on the day he was recalled in 2003.

There are numerous reasons for this steady decline of California Republicans — among them, a suffocatingly right-wing and socially reactionary ideological tilt that is not reflective of the state’s laissez-faire lifestyle, the inability to recruit and fund viable candidates, and the mostly white male party’s shocking incapacity to reflect the diverse demographics of the Golden State, as of 2000 the first majority-minority state in America.

But perhaps one of the biggest, and potentially most fatal, errors over the long term is the state Republican Party’s refusal to allow independent voters to vote in its presidential primary elections.

Democrats made that change years ago, to reflect the fact that nonaligned voters (who in California are called “decline-to-state” voters) are now almost one-fifth of the electorate in California and growing, having more than doubled since 1992.

They constitute the balance of power in most elections, with Democrats at 43 percent and Republicans at only 34 percent. In some counties, there are now more independent voters than Republicans.

This means that on Feb. 5, only 34 percent of California voters will be allowed to participate in the GOP’s closed primary, while 62 percent (which includes independents’ 19 percent) can register their preferences in the Democratic race.

One thing we have learned about independent voters is that in general elections, all things being equal, they tend to stick with the party in whose primary they participated.

In 1998, California independents were allowed to vote for the first time in the state’s gubernatorial primary.

This was California’s first (and only, because the U.S. Supreme Court threw it out in 2000) so-called open primary, in which every candidate, regardless of party, was on the same ballot and every voter, no matter how they were registered, could vote for any candidate.

That year, there were three Democrats competing for governor, including then-Lt. Gov. Davis and a single viable Republican, sitting Attorney General Dan Lungren. In the primary, fully 70 percent of the independents voted for one of the three Democrats, while only 21 percent chose the Republican.

In the fall faceoff between Davis and Lungren, 60 percent of independents voted for Davis, with only 28 percent going to Lungren. The pattern had been set in the primary.

In the 2000 California Republican primary against George W. Bush, Arizona Sen. John McCain was reduced to begging independent voters, who fueled his 18-point victory over Bush that year in New Hampshire, to re-register as Republicans before the deadline so they could vote for him.

Predictably, it didn’t work.

As often as not, the California Republican Party also turns into the Donner Party, eating its own — particularly moderates with independent appeal.

The abortion-rights-supporting former governor (and former U.S. senator) Pete Wilson, by any definition one of the most successful California Republican politicians in the past 50 years, was burned in effigy outside the 1991 state Republican convention for proposing tax increases to fill a huge recession-created budget deficit.

Schwarzenegger, who also strongly supports abortion rights, carried independents heavily in both of his gubernatorial runs, regularly scores approval ratings in the 60s and has won victory margins of 18 percent and 17 percent in this otherwise deep-blue state.

But notwithstanding, his own Republican legislators continually excoriate him.

His 2006 running mate for lieutenant governor, extra-chromosome-conservative state Sen. Tom McClintock, writes virulent op-eds against Schwarzenegger, accusing him of profligacy and intellectual dishonesty.

The Republicans in the Senate regularly deep-six Schwarzenegger’s more reasonable appointees to major state posts.

Popular Republican blogs, one of which is run by a vice chairman and former executive director of the state Republican Party, openly make sport of Schwarzenegger, labeling his most visible cause, global warming, a scam and referring to stem cell research, which he supports, as murder.

Schwarzenegger, for his part, lectures his party about “post-partisanship” and prides himself on becoming perhaps the most recognizable face next to Al Gore in the fight against global warming, both of which drive rank-and-file Republicans, as well as other GOP elected officials, nuts.

At the last state GOP convention, the longtime actor verbally spanked the assembled activists, warning that Republicans in California were “dying at the box office” and “not filling the seats” due to their Luddite ways.

As the star of such clunkers as “Red Sonja” and “Last Action Hero,” the Governator is in a unique position to understand this phenomenon.

But in this instance, he was right, and the yahoos in the folding chairs were wrong.

So don’t be fooled: Despite California’s popular GOP governor, whoever wins the California Republican primary or the GOP nomination is as certain to lose California in November as the sun is to set in the west tomorrow.

And remember, those California condors are actually vultures, and the big birds are probably even now circling the California Republican Party because of its short-sighted policies and self-inflicted wounds.