Free Minds & Free Markets

California's Republican Party Is Irrelevant. Embracing Criminal Justice Reform Could Help Change That.

Conservatives and moderates don’t agree on much, but they do agree on this: The state GOP is dead in the water and needs a new strategy to revive itself.

California's two major Republican factions—conservatives and moderates—have been arguing about the future of the party for at least two decades. They don't agree on much, but after the California party's midterm drubbing they do agree on this point: The state GOP is largely dead in the water and needs a new strategy to revive itself.

A recap is in order. In 1998, 46.8 percent of voters were registered as Democrats, 35.8 percent as Republicans and 12.4 percent chose "No Party Preference." As of 2018, the Democrats held fairly steady at 44.4 percent registration, but those independents grabbed second spot with 25.5 percent and Republicans had sunk to 25.1 percent. On Nov. 6, Democrats took seven GOP-held congressional races (one has yet to be certified), won every statewide office and expanded their supermajorities in the Assembly and Senate.

"The California Republican Party isn't salvageable at this time," wrote former Republican Assembly leader Kristin Olsen or Modesto in a widely discussed post-mortem. "The Grand Old Party is dead—partly because it has failed to separate itself from today's toxic, national brand of Republican politics." She pointed to the need for a New Way. That refers to a group of moderate Republicans, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, who are pushing for bipartisan approaches.

Unfortunately, there's nothing new about this direction. Bipartisanship is great provided you find common ground on substantive limited-government issues. That's a pipe-dream given the views among the Democratic majority. Schwarzenegger's administration, which epitomizes this approach, started out with calls for government reform, but devolved into warmed-over liberalism. Been there, done that.

But the current conservative approach of doubling down on Trumpism will only lead to the party's obliteration. Trump's nationalistic approach, and his hardline stances on immigration and law and order, has been tried repeatedly. In 1994, Proposition 187, which would have denied most public services to illegal immigrants, passed overwhelmingly. But it did long-term damage to the party's brand. And the party has never gotten away from its inflexible tough-on-crime stance.

The only thing the party has left to offer is tax cutting. I'm as big of a tax cutter as you'll find, but Republicans need a broader range of issues. There's plenty there to work from given the state's poverty rates and housing crisis, but Republican lawmakers need to build credibility among voters who increasingly equate Republicanism with the plague.

One good place to rebuild: criminal-justice reform. The past few years California has made dramatic changes in its approach to incarceration. While the Jerry Brown administration was, say, dealing seriously with a federal court order to reduce prison overcrowding, Republicans largely resisted. These and other proposed reforms would, in their tiresome rhetoric, let violent criminals out on the streets or hobble the police.

There's a strong free-market case and civil-liberties case for reforming these government-run, union-controlled systems. The think tank I work for, the R Street Institute, and groups such as Right on Crime make the right-of-center case for shaving out-of-control spending, battling recidivism and coming up with alternative sentences for low-level offenders. Conservative Texas, for instance, has shut down prisons as California built new ones. Sadly, the state GOP's one-note approach has made its input irrelevant, which is too bad given that some Democratic proposals really do go too far.

Here's an example of a better approach. The U.S. Supreme Court just heard arguments in Timbs v. Indiana, involving the government's use of civil asset forfeiture. In 2015, Indiana confiscated a vehicle from a man charged with selling heroin to undercover officers. Because he allegedly transported the drugs in the car, the state took the SUV. There are innumerable instances of governments taking private property from people who haven't even been accused of a crime.

The Eighth Amendment is at issue, given its prohibition on "excessive fines." Forfeiting a $42,000 Land Rover far exceeds the fine ($10,000) and the value of the drugs at issue ($225). When the Indiana solicitor general seemed to hedge in his answer to whether the amendment applied to states, Justice Neil Gorsuch, a Republican appointee, retorted: "And here we are in 2018, still litigating incorporation of the Bill of Rights. Really? Come on, General."

This is a sign that the court might rein in these abuses and a reminder of the liberties-based approach that conservatives should take when it comes to criminal-justice matters. When California tried to reform its asset-forfeiture laws over the years, Republicans often were resistant. The state did so in 2016, with most Republicans eventually voting yes. But the GOP should be leading the charge on these issues, rather than going along kicking and screaming.

Instead of arguing over a moderate v. conservative approach, the party needs to be creative and come up with a new bundle of relevant, freedom-friendly issues that will appeal to a wide swath of Californians. It's worth a try. Nothing else has worked.

Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. He was a Register editorial writer from 1998-2009. Write to him at

This column was first published in the Orange County Register.

Photo Credit: Hindustan Times/Newscom

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  • a ab abc abcd abcde abcdef ahf||

    Or they could try just cutting taxes and spending, leaving everything else alone. I doubt any politician has the will power to rein in their control freak nature, but I bet the public would fall in love with politicians who only cared about cutting taxes and spending, and left the preaching to others.

    I realize that cutting taxes and spending involves political choices and that leads inevitably to choosing what preaching gets how much money. But they won;t even try.

  • Chris Bray||

    What planet was this written on? Start with this:

    "But the current conservative approach of doubling down on Trumpism will only lead to the party's obliteration. Trump's nationalistic approach, and his hardline stances on immigration and law and order, has been tried repeatedly."

    Donald Trump has repeatedly expressed support for federal criminal justice reform legislation. The details of a bill that would win his signature have yet to be nailed down, but that's ordinary politics. Pretty clearly, the implication is that he's willing to join Congress in addressing sentence "stacking" and mandatory minimums. What is this "Trumpism" you're talking about, and what does nationalism have to do with prison sentences?

    Then there's the claim that California Republicans have opposed criminal justice reform with "tiresome rhetoric," namely that it would "let violent criminals out on the streets." Why is it "tiresome" to suggest that reductions in prison sentences and prison populations might allow violent criminals out of jail when the precise literal point of criminal justice reform is to let people out of jail? I'm in favor of criminal justice reform and reduced prison populations, but it's not tiresome to pursue debate on the details.

    Lots of strawmen, here.

  • John||

    When talking about Trump facts are not necessary. The all encompassing desire to virtue signal makes reality irrelevent.

  • Azathoth!!||

    In California, Democrats control who gets to vote, who they get to vote for, how they get to vote, who counts the votes and who controls the investigation if anyone is impertinent enough to point out the vastly criminal wrongs inherent in the previous facts.

    There is nothing the Republican party can do in California short of armed revolt.

  • EscherEnigma||

    They can't do that either. There aren't enough of them.

  • StackOfCoins||

    Yes, but they have most of the guns. Dems would be doomed.

  • Robert||

    Why can't they just join the Democrats? it's not like they have tight membership control.

  • JFree||

    Well if that's the problem, then the easy solution is for Republicans to advocate flooding the legislature with new critters. That sort of control of elections can only occur when a party has complete unquestionable control of the legislature and thru that control of courts and exec oversight. Put a ton of new critters in there - all eager to make a splash doing something visible - and suddenly you start having the sort of messy loudness that can't keep a secret and can't be turned towards a single objective. Nothing will shit on 'jungle primaries' more than increasing the number required for the Assembly from 80 to say 400 or so.

    Course I doubt Republicans are interested in anything other than reducing the number of critters to a number they can manage/buy - say 10 or so.

  • Brett Bellmore||

    The simple problem here is that the Democrats are already in control, and any tactic like that requires having some power to implement it.

  • JFree||

    It doesn't though. At core a non-partisan issue like expanding the legislature is based on undermining the authority of an existing legislature not on implementing something within that existing legislature.

    Undermining something is always external to the thing being undermined. So it is best advanced by going thru the media or putting together memes/phrases ('more representation for the people', 'more diversity of opinion', etc). In CA it probably means creating those phrases to create a separation between D voters and the D's they elect - ie ally with the Sanders/green types. Once the existing critters feel their authority is being undermined - and see a particular way out that doesn't directly harm them (expanding the legislature doesn't eliminate their job - and on its surface it doesn't even change the party balance) - then they can more easily vote to make it happen.

  • EscherEnigma||

    Sure, I'd be up for tripling (or even quadrupling) the size of the state legislature if it was tied with multi-member districts and proportional voting. Would require rejiggering the jungle primaries to accommodate, but that's acceptable.

    That said, if Republicans in California can't actually appeal to more Californians, then no number of structural changes will meaningfully change their power influence. Put simply, for Republicans to become a major player, there needs to be more Republicans. Until they tackle that, everything else is window dressing.

  • Presskh||

    So, just agreeing to open borders and not attempting to enforce laws will get the California GOP back in favor? Sorry, but the Democrats are already practicing this and you can see the resulting tent cities and feces/used needles piles in San Francisco. Becoming Democrats is not the answer for the Republican Party.

  • Jerryskids||

    The state GOP is largely dead in the water and needs a new strategy to revive itself.

    Why? If the voters want what the Democrats are selling, what's the point of offering them the same product in a different wrapper? It's kind of why I left the Catholic Church - when you're preaching the eternal verities but decide you're losing your audience so you have to change with the times, just how eternal and just how veritous do you expect me to believe those eternal verities are? These are my principles, but if you don't like them I have others.

  • Last of the Shitlords||

    This is the state that continually elects people like Maxine Waters. FFS, that is some fiucked up shit right there.

  • Leo Kovalensky II||

    I think it's better to give California the one party control they desire and let them crumble under the weight of their own budget. No bailouts at the national level.

    They were given a democracy. Can they keep it?

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    California has been bailing out America's yahoo stretches, in several ways, for so long as anyone alive can recall.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    California has been bailing out America's yahoo stretches, in several ways, for so long as anyone alive can recall.

  • Ron||

    Vonly if you exclude its halth care and retirment benifits and how much is paid out to illegals under the ideal that they srent illegsl due to thier anchor
    Babies which are excluded from all studies on the subject

  • Last of the Shitlords||

    Arty doesn't have real discussions. He has about five or sex talking points that all denigrate anyone who deviates from the groupthink. Basically, Arty is a high school drop out who tries to act superior because in reality he has a job cleaning up after his wealthy conservative boss.

  • Weigel's Cock Ring||

    It's impossible because California is now more like a foreign country than it is like America, and the democrats are now the America Last party, and seem likely to stay that way.

    Native born Americans have (quite understandably) been fleeing California in droves for many years now.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    Thank you for the perspective from Lower Gooberville.

  • Weigel's Cock Ring||

    Mary, you are the biggest goober this side of Flower Mound.

  • Longtobefree||

    California is the coal mine canary. If you are under 70 years of age, prepare to lose all of your freedoms.

  • NoVaNick||

    I don't and have never lived in California, but please allow me to pontificate: It seems to me that the GOP's problems there are more structural than embracing a specific issue can solve. Namely, the big cities consist of liberal elites who live off their investments, work in entertainment, or the tech sector-all groups that have an aesthetic aversion to anything conservative and benefit from government subsidies. Then you have the mostly immigrant peasant class who services them and depends on government services. The last bastion of conservatism in the interior of the state is shrinking as those people flee the state and its high taxes and cost of living. The only hope for breaking the dem monopoly in California is if the dems finally have to hit the prog elites with high taxes on investments or property to pay for expanding the welfare state.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    'If only California were more like Oklahoma (and Cal Berkeley more like Oral Roberts)' -- the conservative lament.

  • Sevo||

    Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland|12.7.18 @ 1:10PM|#
    'If only California were more like Oklahoma...'

    If only you had a brain cell, asshole.

  • Red Rocks White Privilege||

    Look how much they shrieked when the tax bill nuked their ability to write off the property taxes on their high-priced mortgages. These are the same people who say that the rich need to pay their fair share. Fine, pay up, assholes.

  • OpenBordersLiberal-tarian||

    Unless the national Republican Party returns to the more respectable, patriotic conservatism of decades past — think David Frum / Jennifer Rubin conservatism — it deserves to go extinct along with its California division.


  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    But the current conservative approach of doubling down on Trumpism will only lead to the party's obliteration.

    Sounds right, in more ways than one.

  • Cbalducc||

    There's an interesting line in the Cato article Mr. Greenhut linked to:
    "California was never a Republican or conservative stronghold ".

  • NoVaNick||

    With the exceptions of Utah, Nebraska, and Wyoming, I don't think any state has ever been.

  • Cbalducc||

    Many more states were conservative but not Republican. At least not until the 1990s.

  • Ron||

    Its well documented that anytime the GOP does cooperate with the left that cooperation is not reciprical and only looses them more voters for cooperating, so as another commentor stated above stick to lowering taxes but this is California so that will never happen no matter how hard they try. this state is lost and with Newsom in power next year it will get interesting

  • Robert||

    They don't agree on much, but after the California party's midterm drubbing they do agree on this point: The state GOP is largely dead in the water and needs a new strategy to revive itself.

    Huh? Why don't they just join the Democrats? Seriously, why does any political party need to exist & operate? Like the ends are just assumed, once you have the means? If they don't agree on much, what are they organized for?

  • Robert||

    What makes you think the GOP grass roots would unite behind criminal justic reform? Do you think this to be a sort of thing that leadership can just take off w, & then the voters think, hey, yeah, sounds great?

  • Robert||

    If it really does work that why, why not unite the voters vs. the threat from Paraguay? Or on determining what's really behind the UFOs? Or free dental care for dogs? Or left turns on red lights?

  • Brett Bellmore||

    There isn't anything the GOP can do inside California to pull themselves out of this death spiral. California is now a one party state. Most of the time Republicans aren't even allowed onto the general election ballot, and writing them in is illegal. Illegal immigrants are being extended the franchise, and ballot harvesting can be done right in the open.

    It is literally outside the power of anything they can do within California, all the power is in the Democrats' hands.

  • Ron||

    The most valid statement forget jerrymandering the gop is now almost ilegal in california

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    California's Republican Party Is Irrelevant. Embracing Criminal Justice Reform Could Help Change That: New at Reason

    In California, isn't supporting criminal justice reform essentially going head-to-head with one of the most powerful unions in the country?

  • Ron||

    The criminal reform paassed two years ago only led to more criminal activity. The state claims less but sheriffs have said it only less since you now have to steal more than $800.00 worrth to be called a crime many guns are less than that

  • Curly4||

    Well there is still criminal reforms in name only to be supported as Ron below has stated.

  • ||

    The only way Republicans can get the votes from 85 IQ blacks and mestizos is to become a liberal party. People who don't have the intelligence to support themselves will always vote for the party of free stuff.

  • Curly4||

    If the author had just this as the title of the article I think that it would have been more reflective of reality.
    "California's Republican Party Is Irrelevant . . . "
    The democrats have complete control of the state minus a few small areas in the state and the chances that a republican will ever win a state wide race is very doubtful. For one thing the democrats will be drawing the districts after 2020 census. Yes that will give them a chance to be sure that any group of republicans would be in a vast minority thus unable to elect anyone to office other than local.

  • Hudak||

    I'm shocked to hear that California's republic party is irrelevant and this could be one of mystic thing to see on it which I have read on the site where I read about various things about it.

  • pro bonobo||

    I doubt the GOP California crisis anything that a few massive failures of the Democratic Party crystal ball gazing can't fix. Say, a real crisis of confidence. State checks bouncing. Tax receipts falling.

    And snow pack rising, temperatures falling. A collapse of the climate change meme, which is what the DEM party is using to drive its Smug Alert risings. This is a real possibility.

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  • Hudak||

    I'm shocked to hear that California's republic party is irrelevant and this could be one of mystic thing to see on it which I have read on the site where I read about various things about it.


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