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Might California political parties realign before national parties?

Earlier this month, Elk Grove News editor D.A. Gougherty made an interesting observation on his podcast after California’s Democratic supermajority in the state legislature again failed to pass a promised single-payer healthcare plan. That was AB 1400 sponsored by Asm. Ash Kalra (D-San Jose), and Gougherty said the failure showed California doesn’t have two major parties, but three.

In his view, there are the Republicans and a Democratic Party split between pro-business moderates and its progressives. Healthcare is just one issue that demonstrates this. Another is the major fissure within the state party about accepting financial support from fossil fuel companies, Big Pharma, corporate medicine, and policing organizations who resist reforms.

After much pressing by progressives, the California Democratic Party this weekend announced a less than pure standard to refuse donations from some fossil fuel companies and take a “case-by-case” approach toward other funding sources. This appears to have bought temporary peace, but the intraparty stresses remain as indicated by AB 1400.

“The one thing that unifies California Democrats are what some people call the cultural issues like reproductive rights. But once you get past those, they are really two different parties,” Gougherty said.

The same could be said about the Democratic Party at the national level, which is what wrote about last year following the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. That piece suggested if Main Street Republicans shed themselves of the extremist manacles of Donald Trump and his supporters, they could be eager to realign with moderate Democrats, who are pro-business and somewhat culturally liberal like Rockefeller Republicans of yore.

Jan. 6 initially seemed to offer a potential “rock bottom” moment for the GOP with its leaders in both the U.S. House and Senate (Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell) calling Donald Trump responsible for the attempted coup. But soon after, Trump proved his overwhelming support among the GOP base, and neither McCarthy nor McConnell ultimately supported impeachment.

This has left the national GOP in a curious holding pattern. It now hopes to avoid major painful changes if it can just win back control of one or both houses of Congress. But this it will attempt to do in spite of the albatross of Trump and the cowardice of most Congressional Republicans to strongly break from him. Thus the national GOP is saying its Hail Marys as it implements the same obstructionist playbook from the Obama years, but minus the flimsy platform of repeal-and-replace and lowering corporate taxes.

However in California, Republicans have been at “rock bottom” for some time and thus more ripe for a major overhaul. It has been a decade-and-a-half since a California Republican has held statewide office. As of January, the GOP share of statewide voter registration has shrunk to 24% behind Democrats at 47% and Independents/No Party Preference at 28%. And with mail-in primary voting starting in little more than two months, no major Republican has declared to run for governor or U.S. senator.

The most prominent conservative running for statewide office is Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert for attorney general, but she is running as an independent. Plus in 2019, GOP Assemblyman Brian Maienschein of San Diego switched parties. That same year, the chief justice of the state Supreme Court Tani Cantil-Sakauye de-affiliated from the Republican Party, as did Assemblyman Chad Mayes (Riverside/San Bernandino).

Plus as the California GOP keeps shrinking, its associations with far-right extremists only increase. Last cycle, the party endorsed many QAnon-friendly Congressional candidates and was forced to pull endorsements from other candidates later found to have hate-filled social media accounts. Also both State GOP Chair Jessica Patterson and Congressional candidate Asm. Kevin Kiley spoke at a recall rally last year co-organized by an individual who had recently called for Americans to arm for civil war.

One half wonders if former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer’s delay in announcing his candidacy for governor involves continued polling about whether to go the independent Schubert route. De-affiliating from the Republican Party – which has already left his style of Republicanism – would be a dramatic way of declaring his separation from those photos of him with President Trump (below). It would also more directly embrace that 28% of the primary electorate registered as Independent/No Party Preference.

(More likely though, Faulconer is just waiting until right before the March 11 filing deadline to avoid being surprised by any late-declaring Republicans who could complicate his campaign math.)

Whether or not this would be a step toward future party realignment, Gougherty’s observation about a split California Democratic Party explains why the Democratic supermajority in the state legislature hasn’t been all that super.

“You saw that with the single-payer bill. Progressives were definitely all for it, but the moderate Democrats – who 30, 40 years ago ago would have been Rockefeller Republicans in the GOP – had talking points similar to a Republican: ‘Single-payer costs too much.’ ‘Now is not the time,’ and calling it socialism.”

And the moderate Democrats even blocked single-payer despite their own State Democratic platform that states the party “advocates legislation to create and implement a publicly-funded single-payer... health care system that provides universal coverage for all Californians.”

But political realignments are rare because they must overcome major structural obstacles. Gougherty noted that Southern Democrats who opposed civil rights reform at first stayed in the party to protect their seniority and committee chairmanships.

Then there are the complications of fundraising. In the zero-sum world of the political industrial complex, every corporate dollar not sucked up into your side’s account is viewed as a dollar eager to find your next primary opponent. This has always been the power the NRA has wielded over Republicans who would otherwise be partial to sensible gun reform measures.

“We all know that money is the mother’s milk of politics,” Gougherty said. “Where are you going to make up that money if you start irritating your contributors, your patrons? If you are losing $50,000 in donations from Big Oil, and there is an opponent within your district and party who takes a position more favorable to Big Oil, that is where that money is going to go. In that example, that is a $100,000 swing.”

This may partly explain why the California Democratic Party is trying to slow down too many fundraising reforms too quickly. But then again, a party that doesn’t live by its own political platform and principals risks looking as hollow as... well... moderate Republicans.

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