Whatever Happened to California Republicans?

From 1965 through 1990, Republican presidential nominees carried California six times in a row, the GOP’s best winning streak ever in the Golden State. California not only was the greatest source of Republican votes in the nation (roughly 10% of GOP votes nationally were delivered here in the 1980s), but its Republican Party produced two presidents within 20 years (Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972, and Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984). California’s “populist conservatives” also passed initiatives such as the property tax-cutting Proposition 13 in 1978 that helped spark the national “Tax Revolt.”

During the 1980s, California’s population grew by a record six million, mostly in Republican-leaning suburbia. The Republican future seemed prosperous in the nation’s most populous state.

Now, California Democrats have their own presidential six-election winning streak, Republicans are down to just 28% of registered voters (and sinking), and Gov. Jerry Brown was unbeatable for re-election in 2014. Meanwhile, Republicans took just about everything else across the country.

How could California Republicans, so strong under Nixon and Reagan, fall apart so completely?

California used to be a “swing” state at the national level, voting for every president from 1900 to 1956. At the state level, Republicans often remained in power due to the state’s “cross-filing” system where candidates could win the nominations of more than one party, thus helping state Republicans continue to control the Legislature despite Franklin Roosevelt sweeping the state repeatedly. For example, Governor Earl Warren in 1946 and Senator William Knowland in 1952 were the nominees of both major parties, and were re-elected easily. The result of cross-filing often made the policies of moderate-to-liberal Republican governors like Warren and Goodwin Knight very similar to those of Democrats. (Cross-filing was ended in the 1950s, thus making California politics as partisan as almost everywhere else). There certainly was a more conservative wing of California Republicans led by Nixon and Knowland, but many Republicans were moderates in the Warren-Knight mold.

California’s “reform” political system also included three key mechanisms to place power directly in the hands of voters: 1) the “initiative” allows placing policy ideas up for a yes-or-no vote; 2) the “referendum” allows a majority of voters to repeal any state law; and 3) the “recall” allows a majority of voters to remove a public official. (Ask Gray Davis.)

The 1958 election in which Pat Brown was elected by a 60-40% landslide ushered in a liberal, partisan era in California. His programs -- the California Aqueduct, the freeway system, the University of California and California State University -- were precursors of Kennedy and Johnson, who brought their New Frontier-Great Society agenda.

Pat Brown’s solid defeat of Nixon in the 1962 governor’s race seemed to signify liberal ascendance in California. Two years later, Lyndon Johnson’s burying of Barry Goldwater both nationally and in California was thought to confirm a new liberal era.

But beneath Goldwater’s disastrous defeat, new issues were percolating that would quickly undermine the Democrats. In 1963, Pat Brown passed an “open housing” law; a year later, opponents conducted a successful referendum repealing that law. While LBJ carried California by 18 points, the open housing law lost by 30. Johnson carried white workers by roughly 2-1 -- but those same workers voted against open housing by 3-1. The “open housing” effect showed up in California’s Senate race that year, as a former actor named George Murphy defeated former Kennedy Press Secretary Pierre Salinger mainly by appealing to anti-integration sentiments.

Meanwhile, another former actor named Ronald Reagan was gaining rave reviews for his staunch campaigning on Goldwater’s behalf.

Lyndon Johnson won such a massive across-the-board victory that his results don’t reveal much, but the defeat of Pierre Salinger and the housing law were the real long-term stories of 1964 in California.

The hidden fears of many Californians burst into the open with the Watts riot in August of 1965, the first major race riot outside the South. Sensing that voters were tired of Pat Brown, Reagan capitalized on voter resentment of high taxes, crime, and campus protests to oust Brown by nearly a million votes. His greatest political master-stroke was in understanding that the Democrats were now weakest where they had once been strongest -- the blue collar workers.

Of the twelve most-working class towns in Southern California, many of them filled with white workers from the aeronautics factories, all had been carried by Pat Brown in 1962; in 1966, he carried just one. This was the first election where the Reagan Democrats showed up in numbers for the Republican Party, and they became a mainstay for the party for the next generation.