Will the Central Valley be the Republican Party’s last stand?
The Republican Party was routed in the November elections. Three critical dynamics accounted for the historic size of the loss and reveal a road map for what will either be Republican resurrection or destruction in the Central Valley.
The first factor was the historic midterm turnout of Latino voters. Historically, Latino voters have the lowest likelihood of voting in midterm elections, setting an all-time low during the midterms in 2014 of 17 percent of eligible voters. In 2018, the turnout rate was more than double that.
Second, voters who are not registered with either major party and claim “No Party Preference” broke toward Democrats in a big way. California polls had these so-called independent voters moving toward the Democrats as nearly 70 percent held a negative view of the Republican Party.
Finally, and most importantly for the future of the GOP, a growing fissure in the Republican base has begun to show just how unsustainable the coalition between suburban, coastal, college-educated Republicans and their inland, blue-collar counterparts is. As one notable quotable put it: “The Republican Party used to be a country club — now it’s just country.” In fact, the seven remaining GOP-held congressional districts essentially represent the sparsely populated deserts, valleys, mountains and forests, leaving the metropolitan cities and populated suburbs to the Democrats.
This trifecta had one common factor driving their voting behavior: Donald Trump. The president’s incessant need to resort to racial- and cultural-wedge issues proved to be the undoing of the Grand Old Party in a year when significant economic growth and gains have been made across most racial and geographic sectors. Rather than ride the wave of economic prosperity, Trump regressed to a message of migrant caravans, building walls and stoking anxieties about a changing America. Congressional Republicans followed suit.
The result? Republicans lost seven congressional seats, as well as a handful of legislative losses that drove them deeper into super-minority status in Sacramento.
The GOP is now only winning with non-college-educated white voters. This is the fastest shrinking demographic in both California and the country. The Central Valley is one area where these voters reside in significant numbers and these voters share zip codes, schools, churches and shopping centers with working-class Latinos, who also share their economic concerns, worries, hopes and fears.
Unlike the wealthy and racially segregated suburbs in Orange County, north San Diego and the outskirts of Los Angeles, the Central Valley has neighborhoods with middle- and lower-income households with both Anglo and Latino surnames.
Because the Central Valley continues to suffer while its coastal neighbors thrive, it’s here that poses the greatest prospect for a Republican resurgence if the party could focus on its core message of jobs, opportunity and economic mobility.
Unfortunately, Republicans have abandoned this winning message of prosperity to parrot the president’s playbook of racial antagonism. While the GOP politics of immigrant bashing didn’t start under Trump, it has certainly accelerated under him. Despite 20 years of evidence and losing to show why this is a terrible strategy (as well as an immoral one), Republicans don’t seem capable of going back to what works anytime soon.
The Fresno County Republican Party invited the controversial and inflammatory Arizona Sherriff Joe Arpaio to keynote an event just months before the midterm elections. This is the same person who was found by the U.S. Department of Justice to have engaged in the worst pattern of racial profiling in U.S. history and it filed suit against him for unlawful discriminatory police conduct. And then in 2016 Arpaio was summarily removed from office by his constituents.
In other words, Arapaio was found to be unfit for office by the people who knew him best, but was found to be just right to keynote a Republican Party event in Fresno — a county that is only 30 percent white.
If Republicans in California are looking for a way back to relevance, dropping the focus on race-based politics is a good place to start. If that change can’t happen in the Central Valley, it’s not likely to happen anywhere.