Can Republicans Win California Again?

Marc Ambinder has two pieces in Hotline on Call today that strike me as interrelated. This morning, he wrote about a memo from Brent Seaborn, Rudy Giuliani’s strategy director, arguing that his candidate can win California in 2008, a feat no Republican has accomplished in the twenty years since George H.W. Bush beat Mike Dukakis. The memo is poorly written and rather fact-challenged but the thesis, that Giuliani is attracting across-the-board support and could be Clinton in California and other states not traditionally in play, is plausible.

This afternoon, Ambinder cautions Republicans not to worship too much at the alter of Ronald Reagan.

Ronald Reagan pulled the spokes together: anti-communism, traditional moral values, strong nat’l defense and lower taxes. Those ideas survived, but without Reagan to sell them, they proved incapable of producing a governing majority themselves.

By and large, the GOP has rejected “compassionate conservatism” and is looking for something new. But the GOP candidates all seem to want to channel Reagan, as if his spirit alone can save the party. Some lace their speeches with “optimism” — literally, the word. Others wonder what Reagan would do in the face is Islamic terror. Still others go so far as to compare their political journey’s to Reagan’s. None comes close to capturing Reagan’s essence.

The reason no post-Reagan Republican has managed this is rather obvious: The end of the Cold War removed anti-Communism from the equation. Further, the Reagan tax cuts, which took a confiscatory top bracket down from 70 percent to 38 percent, made further reforms less urgent.

Post 9/11, national security has resumed its prominence on the national agenda and is arguably the reason George W. Bush managed to get re-elected despite a mediocre first term. The unpopularity of the Iraq War, not to mention its mismanagement under Republican governance, makes that a harder sell in 2008.

The key, then, is finding a leader who can both energize the Republican base of fiscal and social conservatives while not alienating — or, heaven forfend, actually appealing to — moderates and the slightly-left-of-center.

This partly answers the question, “Why Fred Thompson” that Alex Knapp and Kevin Drum have posed. He’s a likable, charismatic fellow who comes across as honest and strong. He’s also a virtual unknown from a policy sense and has little real experience unless one counts move roles.

Giuliani, on the other hand, is charismatic and experienced. He’s likable on the stump. He’s sufficiently centrist, or even left-of-center, on the most divisive social issues that he doesn’t scare away the moderates and his stances on security issues seem, so far at least, to dampen the concerns of all but the most ardent members of the Jerry Falwell wing of the base. And, frankly, they’re not voting for Hillary Clinton.

Arnold Schwarzenegger has managed to twice win election as governor of California under the GOP banner. It’s not inconceivable that Giuliani could pull it off, especially against Clinton.

Twenty years ago, the Republicans were said to have a “lock” on the Electoral College, having won every presidential election but one over the previous twenty years — and the exception, 1976, was a narrow loss that took Watergate, an accidental nominee, and a Democrat who was arguably more conservative than the Republican. As Ambider notes, that suddenly changed in 1992: “Thanks to Pete Wilson, illegal immigration, migration, cultural politics or something else entirely, Democrats don’t worry about the state.”

California is no doubt a much more liberal state than it was in 1988. Still, Giuliani is arguably to the left of Clinton on illegal immigration and he’s certainly not under Pat Robertson’s thumb. He’s more popular than she is among virtually every segment of the community. Why couldn’t he win?

It’s quite conceivable, though, that Giuliani’s support — like Barack Obama’s — is as high now as it’s ever going to be. People don’t know him as well as they do Clinton and what most of them do “know” is good. There are plenty of ugly stories about heavy-handed police tactics that will get more fully aired. People will be reminded of his divorces and the unseemly circumstances surrounding them. On the other hand, it may simply be that nobody will much care what he did before 9/11. That may have wiped away all past sins.

If so, he’s got a shot.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Scott_T says:

    As a Californian I say “Here! Here!”.

    I’m tired of politicians thinking of California as a “Blue State”, when it’s only really SF/LA/Sac are the blue part. When reality is that the suburbs, San Diego, Orange County, and farm country is Red. It’s the “older” parts (and Hollywood) that are “Blue’.

    2010/20122 shall probably see a big shakeup in the demographics as the census numbers shall be in.

  2. Tano says:

    I would agree that Rudy seems much more likely to bleed support than expand it. He has very high name recognition, and most of it is based on the 9/11 hero thing. As he begins to be evaluated as a potential president, he loses that aura.

    This is completely different from the Obama dynamic I think. He is an unknown for the most part. I understand that he has had some favorable buzz-type of coverage that might lead one to think that there will be disilluion coming for some of his supporters. But he also has lots of room for growth in terms of support, because lots of people dont know him yet. I see no sense whatsoever in the claim that his support will never be higher.

  3. James Joyner says:

    I see no sense whatsoever in the claim that his support will never be higher.

    I see Obama as an empty vessel into which people can pour their desires for a candidate. He has taken essentially no stances on any positions, other than being politely against an incredibly unpopular war. Once he takes positions, he’ll alienate people.

  4. Tano says:


    Obama certainly has taken stands on issues. Maybe you dont see that if all you do is get the soundbites that are reported by the media, but he does have a website with plenty of positions laid out, plus video and transcripts of complete speeches where postions are articulated.

    On Iraq for instance, he introduced a bill to lay out a plan for partial withdrawl, with some troops staying for counterterrorism and training of Iraqis – with a timetable and benchmarks, and flexibility in how those two interface. Whatever you may think of the plan, you cant claim that it lacks detail or specificity.

    I suspect you will be rooting for the other party, but we do kinda look to you to at least give a fair accounting of things.

  5. yetanotherjohn says:

    Depending on the democrat and republican candidates (and any third party candidates), California is in play to either party. I don’t think you can say much more than that until you know who the players are. As Arnold showed, just having an (R) after your name is not enough to lose the state, even against heavy political headwinds. On the other hand, the last 20 years of presidential elections show that winning California is not easy for a republican candidate.

    Looking at this a different way, if the democrats are in serious danger of losing California, then they are certain to lose the election and the only real question is the size of the loss (narrow, moderate, large or landslide). There is no credible combination of states that would allow the democrats to recover from losing the 55 EC votes of California. Part of that is that if they lost California, it would also mean they lost all the more contested states like Ohio and Florida.

    But again, you have to look at the candidates. Just looking at Rudy on the republican side, you see that which states would go which way varies wildly depending on the candidate. Against Hillary, Rudy would seem to swap 20 EC votes in Ohio for 10 EC votes in Wisconsin (both states are close), which would seem to be a narrow win for Rudy of 276 to 261 EC votes.

    Against Obama, Rudy picks up 62 EC votes at a cost of 7 EC votes, setting up a 341 to 196 blow out.

    But against Edwards, Rudy would pick up 31 EC votes in New York, but lose 46 EC votes to make the final EC count at 258 to 265 with the 13 EC votes of the Virginia tie deciding the election.

    So what that tells me is that just looking at this one snap shot poll very early in the race is that any of the top three democratic candidates would be in trouble against Rudy from a blow out (Obama) to a narrow win (Hillary) to a long election decided by lawyers a couple months after the election (Edwards and the Virginia tie).