Should California Republicans Become “Democrat-Lite”?

Everyone has a take on why Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s reform initiatives took such a beating at the poles during the recent special election. At the center of the discussion seems to be the age old debate as to how the Republican Party can attract non-traditional Republican voters and expand the party’s base.
Many Republican leaders in California are guided by the belief that the only way to win is to abandon our socially conservative principles. Others like myself, believe that it is not our principles that must change, but how we message our values and the sincerity of our efforts to work with and for those who traditionally have not voted Republican.

RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman puts it best in this overlooked article in the San Francisco Chronicle back on August 7, 2005 :

“We don’t have to choose between motivating our base and bringing new faces and new voices into the party,” said GOP Chairman Ken Mehlman, who was elevated to the post after successfully managing President Bush’s 2004 re- election campaign.

“We talk about a compassionate conservative philosophy that not only unites Republicans, but attracts support among discerning Democrats and among independents.”

Meeting in this traditionally Democratic, working-class city, Republicans spent hours talking about how to reach out to new constituents: blacks, Latinos, Asians, Catholics and women.

Rather than conceal their conservative extremes, party leaders heartily embraced Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, the guest of honor, who told fellow Republicans that his traditional values message “is a good solid message for every community in America.”

As Democrats struggle with their positions on guns, gays and God in order to satisfy disparate wings of their party and lure swing voters, Republicans are promoting conservative values as a way to enhance their electoral standing.

Looking to expand what already is its strongest hold on power in nearly eight decades, the Republican Party sees its strong traditional values message, coupled with the failures of the welfare state and the Democratic Party’s rigidity, as the keys to attracting minorities and other new members.

“We’re not asking Republicans to become more liberal to lure new voters into the party,” Mehlman told the delegates.

This is the strategy that helped Republicans re-elect a President with dropping approval numbers, expand their majorities in both the House and the Senate, as well as increase the number of Republican governors across the country.

The discussion about the party’s future came at a time of historic strength for Republicans.

The GOP has more seats in Congress than at any time since 1929, when Herbert Hoover was president. Republicans hold the governor’s seat in 28 states, including the nation’s four largest. And for the first time since pollsters began asking party affiliations, roughly the same number of people identify themselves as Republicans as Democrats.

In Pennsylvania this strategy has resulted in the election of Senator Rick Santorum, who has been one of the most consistent conservative voices in the upper house. It has also been a key influence in the candidacy of former NFL great Lynn Swan for Governor of this swing state.

In Ohio, it is conservative messaging to broad audiences that helped Republicans pass a constitutional amendment to protect marriage, elect a Black Secretary of State, Ken Blackwell, who is also the leading candidate for Governor in the 2006 election. An let us not forget that it was Ohio that was the key win that put President Bush over the top in his re-election bid.

The fact is, conservative values reach across racial and cultural lines. It transcends socio-economic status and even political parties. And the reason we are having problems expanding our base here in California is because party leadership has decided that conservatism won’t work here.

Santorum’s politics are not popular with all Republicans, particularly in more socially moderate states such as California.

Duf Sundheim, chairman of the California Republican Party, acknowledged that Santorum’s brand of conservatism differs from his own. At the same time, he said Santorum’s prominence has no effect in California.

“Our fortunes between now and ’06 are more tied to (Republican) Gov. (Arnold) Schwarzenegger than any external factor,” Sundheim said.

Unfortunately, what Sundheim doesn’t understand is that our success at the ballot box will not be determined by “Star Power” . It is not the popularity of Senator Santorum or Governor Schwarzenegger that will determine our part’s success, but it is our values, how we communicate them and how we translate them into public policy that will be the key to winning at the ballot box.

One only need look at the special election to realize that basing our strategy on the popularity of any one man is a bad idea. I wrote in a recent post “Are Conservatives to Blame?”

From the very beginning, Republicans and Democrats made it clear that this election was a referendum on Governor Schwarzenegger. Republicans were hoping to ride popularity and “star power” to victory, just as they had in the 2003 Recall and the 2004 elections. Democrats on the other hand used it as an opportunity to get away from discussing the actual merits of the Governor’s reforms and instead make his personal integrity the issue. Needless to say the Democrat’s plan was much more effective.

Those of us who have been working in the grass roots trying to expand the base of the Republican Party understand that it will take more than a high profile media campaign to expand our party.

“I don’t go into the community with a big ‘R’ on my chest, because the door will be slammed in my face,” said David Morgan, president of the California Black Republican Council. Instead, Morgan described a GOP event with hip-hop music and free hot dogs and hamburgers, in which he registered 40 new African American voters.

Pam Olsen, a Florida pastor, said she resisted telling her congregants “vote for George W. Bush.” But she felt comfortable telling them that “God is pro-life,” and said she saw many black pastors get involved in helping Bush because of their opposition to same-sex marriage.

What is attracting these new Republican voters is the willingness of Republicans to come to where they are; understand their issues; and communicate how our common conservative values can produce societal and public policy solutions to the challenges they face.

We have a lot of heavy lifting to do to expand our party here in California. And if we are to be successful, it will not be as some sort of “Democrat-Lite” party. “All the liberal values without the annoying tax increases.” It will be because we have committed the resources necessary to build relationships with diverse voters and have focused our message on shared values of family, opportunity and freedom as it applies to all Californians.

Craig DeLuz

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