California GOP: Still Missing the Mark?

A Gas Tax Repeal is going to be the GOP rallying call in 2018

In the San Francisco Chronicle, this past Sunday, Joe Garofoli reported on the California’s GOP Convention. This is where the GOP revealed its two-part strategy; 1) Get people to the polls in 2018 with a ballot initiative to repeal the new gas tax and 2) blame Democrats for the unacceptable poverty rate in the largest economy in the Union.

There are a few problems with this strategy.

  1. California’s roads do indeed suck
  2. This is a page from the Old GOP Playbook, which was largely ineffective
  3. The California GOP will try to peel some voters away from the Democrats by using poverty as a wedge

California’s Roads

A look back at California’s roads

The roads Californians travel every day are in desperate need of repair. Just hop in your car, take a Lyft, or take a walk and look at the streets.

The issues facing California’s infrastructure are well documented so I won’t take up your time re-litigating them, except to make the following point; they need fixing. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) produces a Infrastructure Report Card every year and their 2017 Report Card gave California a D+.

The most important point to note is that California voters know this about their roads. According to a June 2017 poll conducted by the UC Berkeley Insistent of Governmental Studies, 58% of registered voters opposed the Senate Bill 1 (the Gas Tax Bill). But a poll conducted after the passage of SB1 showed that a majority of California voters (54%) opposed repeal of the gas tax.

Personally, I believe the truth is somewhere in between these polls. California voters don’t love the idea of paying more at the pump but if the money is going solely to our roads, they will stomach the cost and will likely vote to leave the gas tax in place.

So if California’s roads are so bad, why would the GOP look to repeal a tax to repair them?

The Ol’ GOP Playbook

The California Republican Party has a long record of being anti-tax. Remember, California is home to Prop. 13 and was the launching pad/testing ground for Ronald Reagan’s anti-tax message, which launched him to the White House in the 1980’s. During the 1990’s, there was also an electoral appetite for anti- tax measures and smaller government initiatives. The California GOP coming out against an increased tax measure is nothing new. What is new, however, is the California electorate.

The thought that a tax repealing ballot measure will bring Republicans to the polls in 2018 is a dated strategy. The last effective usage of this tactic was the recall of Gray Davis in 2003.

A pin from the Recall Davis campaign, 2003

The recall of Davis was largely spurred by an increase in the vehicle registration fee. With roughly 9 million voters casting a ballot in that election, the issue to recall Davis was successful. This recall opened the door for the special election that sent Arnold Schwarzenegger to Sacramento. Could a similar strategy work in 2018?

Probably not.

As mentioned above, the California electorate has changed a lot since 2003. Look back to my piece from two weeks ago to see some of this change and the California GOP has (or has not) responded to those changes. With the changes in the state’s electorate, the first pillar of the GOP strategy might get some GOP voters to the polls but it won’t bring the landslide of voters required to get the GOP back to relevance.

If the first pillar of the GOP strategy is shaky, then what about pillar #2?

The GOP and Poverty

This 2011 cartoon shows that the GOP has an image problem when talking about poverty

The second pillar of the GOP’s 2018 strategy is to point out that Democrats have been in power for years and poverty in California has gotten worse, not better. On this point, they are right. Recently, we have seen record high housing prices all over the state and issues of homelessness that have come to dominate local news and the conversations of many Californians.

In short, poverty is an issue in California.

As reported by US Census, 20% of Californians do live in poverty and another 20% live close to poverty. This is an issue that Democrats and Republicans can agree on. But for the GOP to start to spin the narrative that they can become the anti-poverty party, they have a lot of work to do.

According to CNN, the two parties have different approaches to cutting poverty and these are largely determined by philosophy; Democrats largely view government programs as the best way forward while Republicans look to more market orientated fixes.

The issue of poverty cuts right through party lines. As the Brookings Institute pointed out in November 2016, Democratic congressional districts have a higher poverty rate then Republican districts but most people in poverty live in Republican held districts.

So where is the hole that California Republicans think they can run toward and bust Democratic control? I’m not entirely sure. Poverty is an issue facing California and we, as citizens, should elevate this issue much higher on our agenda.

But at the end of the day, when voting on poverty, will voters cast a ballot for the party of Reagan or for the party of LBJ and the Great Society? If the GOP is serious about elevating the issue of poverty, it won’t happen in a calendar year. It will take a more time than an election cycle.