This article is part of an ongoing content partnership between Neon Tommy and L.A. Currents.
A string of electoral losses recently prompted the release of an “autopsy” about the current health — or lack thereof — of the national Republican Party. But when taking stock of the prospects for Republicans here in Los Angeles, political insiders take the mortician analogy a step further.
“The state of the Republican Party in L.A. is as dead as dead gets,” said former mayoral candidate Walter Moore, who pulled in 26 percent of the vote when he ran as an Independent in 2009 against incumbent Mayor Villaraigosa. Compare that to four years earlier when Moore ran as a GOP candidate in an election with multiple Democratic candidates. He won three percent of the vote.
“I think it’s a very tarnished brand in this city,” he said. “You may as well say you’re in the Klan.”
Take the case of former talk-radio host Kevin James, the only Republican candidate in this year’s mayoral race. James may have finished a respectable third in the primary, but he managed to win just 16 percent of the vote, despite an outgoing Democratic incumbent of only modest popularity and a slate of liberal opponents whose biggest challenge was differentiating themselves from one another (on Tuesday James endorsed Eric Garcetti). Throughout the race there appeared to be an opportunity for a charismatic outsider like James, but his campaign never found any significant purchase with voters.
“The Republican Party is missing a lot of opportunities right now,” James said. “They’ve been rudderless in the last few years. It’s just taken time for them to find their way, and they still haven’t found it. And in that process, you’re going to miss opportunities.”
Despite its reputation as a bastion of coastal liberalism, L.A. has always supported a healthy, if less vocal, Republican contingent. Republican businessman Richard Riordan served two terms as mayor, and he ranks alongside Tom Bradley as one of the most popular in recent history. And lest we forget, L.A. was home to former President Ronald Reagan — the unrivaled hero of the modern Republican Party — who retired to Bel Air after presiding over a national revival of the conservative movement.
While the electoral base in Los Angeles has grown from 1.5 million registered voters in 2001 to over 1.8 million this year, the city has shed about 38,000 registered Republicans. GOP voters made up 22 percent of the 2001 electorate but less than 16 percent in this past election.
In discussions with the last two major Republican (or Republican-leaning) mayoral candidates about the state of L.A.’s Republican Party, three major “causes of death” emerged.
First, the national Republican stance on social issues has become completely unmoored from the positions held by the overwhelming majority of voters in Los Angeles. Second, conditions regarding the economy, crime, and quality of life have not deteriorated enough locally for a throw-the-bums-out mentality to take hold. And last, the party, having lost faith that it can win here again, has already waved the white flag.
The party is increasingly out of touch
Looking back, the lasting anecdotes from the Republican Party’s 2012 campaign were Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” tape and two Senate candidates’ ill-advised and grossly ill-informed rape comments. Even when the party did do well in recent years, specifically when the anti-government Tea Party movement swept into power in 2009, none of the themes struck a chord with people in L.A.
“What are the positions that get publicized for the Republicans?” Moore asked. “They emphasize things like family values as code for ‘we don’t like gay people.’ That has no appeal. And when they do talk about something, it’s an issue like liberty. Well, you know, I feel like we’ve pretty much [solved] the liberty problem here. I don’t hear people complaining that they don’t have enough liberty. What they want is, say, jobs — that would be nice. Or good schools — that’d be good.”
James concurred. “The Republican Party platform’s positions on social issues do not line up with the priorities in Los Angeles. They need to recognize that and move beyond it.”
One major point of friction between the Republican Party and Los Angeles has to do with the party’s history of bellicose rhetoric toward immigrants — particularly Latinos — who make up 49 percent of the city, according to the 2010 census. James, a former talk-radio firebrand who once expressed support for a wall along the U.S.–Mexico border, wisely chose to downplay the issue during his campaign.
Moore, on the other hand, made Jamiel’s Law, an ultimately unsuccessful proposal that would have allowed law enforcement to use immigration status as another tool to target gang members and criminals, a centerpiece of his 2009 campaign. Moore sees similarities between Jamiel’s Law and certain immigration policies of the Obama Administration, which has presided over a record number of deportations of undocumented immigrants.
“People can reasonably disagree on whether to give sanctuary to people who just come here because they want to work, because they come from a destitute country. I mean who can't understand that? Who among us wouldn't do that kind of thing?” he said. “But to give sanctuary to people who come here to kill and commit crimes, that's just crazy.”
In local elections, successful candidates often eschew grand ideological proclamations focusing instead on the more granular details of the day-to-day running of the city. Republicans might have better success de-emphasizing some aspects of the national party that don’t sit well with Angelenos, according to Moore.
“In the city election, you have to also make clear that most of the issues really aren’t partisan,” Moore said. “There’s no foreign-policy issue in the city of L.A. No city government has the power to affect the constitutional right to an abortion.”
James agreed. “The Republican Party, if they want to continue to draw a hard line on social issues, then they’re going to lose elections,” he said. “The only opportunity that they have is in a non-partisan race like mine, but they’re going to have to be willing to show up with more energy than they did this last time.”
Things aren’t bad enough (yet)
The last Republican mayor of Los Angeles, Riordan, was elected in 1993. Part of the reason for his election, political experts say, was due in large part to the climate of fear that gripped the city in the aftermath of the previous year’s riots. In the same year but on a different coast, Republican candidate Rudy Giuliani beat the sitting Democratic Mayor of New York David Dinkins in another election where public safety became an overarching theme. In that race Dinkins came under heavy criticism for his leadership during the Crown Heights riot of August 1991. Whether it is a shibboleth or not, Republicans have traditionally won over voters as the party that is tougher on crime.
Crime in Los Angeles has declined for 10 consecutive years, and neighborhoods such as Hollywood, Venice, and Echo Park feel safer than they did a decade ago. Tough-on-crime candidates can be easily marginalized in elections when the perception of safety among likely voters is a secondary concern. James, who campaigned as the toughest anticrime candidate in the race, isn’t convinced that a more fearful public could have helped his candidacy.
“Would a spike in crime have forced more Republicans out to vote?” he asked. “I don’t know.”
Where James thought he had an edge with voters was over the city’s financial situation. But ultimately that wasn’t perceived to be bad enough to propel an outsider. During the campaign James felt the stakes were too high for voters not to show up, but the low turnout shows that his message failed to persuade.
“Obviously, the public is not mad enough,” James said. “Not enough people are mad enough yet. More people need to feel it before they’re willing to understand it, before they’re willing to take action. And it’s just going to take another election cycle, I’m afraid.”
They don’t think they can win anymore
When it comes to the meager support shown to James’ candidacy by the California Republican Party, James doesn’t mince words.
“I don’t know that I blame it as much on the brand of the Republican Party and its challenges as much as I blame it on the unwillingness of the Republicans to step into the local arena. We had some great Republican grassroots support, but any kind of institutional support from the state party was essentially nonexistent.”
There are a few remaining Southern California conservative strongholds like Orange County and the Inland Empire (although not nearly as strong as they once were), and some argue that there is too much risk deploying resources to an expensive mayoral race in a deeply blue city like L.A. James rejects the idea that the party can remain competitive in the state by abandoning L.A.
“You’re never going to win anything significant in California if you don’t do better in Los Angeles,” James said. “That’s been shown time and time again. That’s not an ideological issue, that’s a numbers issue.”
Within Republican L.A., the beating heart was the San Fernando Valley, which for decades could reliably deliver conservative votes in local elections. In recent years this conservative base has slowly eroded, leaving the party adrift.
Westlake Village, an affluent, largely white community deep in the West Valley provides a snapshot of this change. In 2001, 3,025 out of its 5,845 registered voters identified as Republican. By 2013, the number of Republicans dropped to 2,693, while the population increased to 6,398. If Republicans can’t predominate in Westlake Village, there’s really nowhere in L.A. for them to predominate at all.
“We used to talk about the Valley as being very culturally and politically distinct,” said Loyola Marymount University professor and political commentator Fernando Guerra, but nowadays “they don’t vote that much different than the city. And so there’s not this really conservative base. Yeah, the West Valley probably is the most conservative part of the city, but it’s not that conservative, and one would have to be careful about playing that up.”
According to the California secretary of state, there are 290,000 registered Republicans in the city. Thus, as Moore points out, if just half of them had turned out to vote for James, he would have received the necessary 50 percent plus one and scored a first-round knockout. Only about 285,000 total votes were cast in the mayoral race, proving Moore’s math correct.
“They think there’s no way they could possibly win, and these ultra-low-turnout elections, these local elections, they can certainly win,” said Moore who described this thinking as a citywide, “learned-helplessness” syndrome.
“That’s a psychological term where you can condition someone into thinking that they can’t win,” he explained. “Like when an elephant is a baby elephant, they whip it and put a big chain around it so that it can’t break the chain. And then, when it grows up and you just tie a rope that the elephant can easily snap, it thinks it’s got the chain, so it doesn’t even fight.”