A New Party You Don’t Want To See

Would Meg Whitman have won if she ran as an independent candidate?

That’s the question that comes to mind after reflecting on the collapse of the California Republican Party. With a base that refuses to accept 21st century reality and demands fealty to an agenda of white supremacy and feudal economics, Republican candidates are going to struggle to win statewide elections in a state where a clear majority of the population has rejected that base’s extremism.

In turn, that means Republican statewide candidates will always face the dilemma that helped bring down Whitman – they cannot please the right-wing base and have any chance at winning a statewide election. Whitman had to appease her base’s hatred of Latinos, and as a result lost the election by 13 points.

But what if Whitman didn’t have to run as a Republican? What if she spent her money to get herself on the ballot as an independent candidate? Whitman would have been free of the need to appease the right-wing base, and could have made a credible bid to win Latinos and other Californians who refuse to support the Republican agenda.

This thought experiment can only go so far, of course. Whitman didn’t just attack Latinos and threaten to destroy the state’s public services because it was necessary to win a GOP primary – it’s what she actually believed. Even as an independent candidate, Whitman’s same personal and political flaws would have enabled Jerry Brown to win – especially if Whitman bled votes to an actual Republican candidate. So an independent candidacy would, on its own, not have meaningfully changed things.

But what about the top-two primary?

That’s where things get interesting – and worrisome. It would not be difficult for corporate elites to back statewide candidates who run as independents in a top-two primary. These would be candidates in the mold of Michael Bloomberg, Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Britain’s David Cameron – accepting the social liberalism of the electorate (rejecting the religious right, the anti-Latino right, and the anti-gay right) while espousing right-wing, neoliberal, corporate-friendly economic policies.

With enough money behind them, it is possible that such a candidate could place in the top two in the primary, alongside a Democrat, and pose a formidable challenge in a general election. Arnold Schwarzenegger showed how such a candidate could win in an election without party primaries (the 2003 recall). It’s a new party – the Corporate Party – that you don’t want to see.

At the same time, this effort would encounter some significant obstacles. Voters showed that they really don’t like wealthy self-funders, and are tiring of right-wing economic policies that undermine the public sector basis of prosperity.

Additionally, there really isn’t any electoral base for this kind of candidate – California’s electorate is divided into a large progressive bloc, a sizable right-wing bloc, and a very small number of people who aren’t solidly in either one, but who nevertheless gravitate toward one or the other. Wealth alone can’t cobble together a coalition that can give an independent corporate candidate a second-place showing in the primary.

Still, this represents the best, and perhaps only, hope for the corporate elite here in California. With an unelectable Republican Party, gaming the top-two primary gives them a shot at blocking Democrats from governing California.

Of course, Democrats themselves have work to do – namely, laying out a progressive agenda and vision for California that can consolidate Democratic victories. But that’s the topic for tomorrow’s post.

19 thoughts on “A New Party You Don’t Want To See”

  1. if the Republican Party decided to treat them as the Democrats have Bernie Sanders in Vermont for many years — as a NADINO (“Not a Democrat in Name Only) — but I’m not convinced that it’s worth the trouble.

    Maybe it’s just my vantage point behind the Orange Curtain, but the “California Republican Party is dead” notion strikes me as just so much brave talk.  The temptation to draw too-broad lessons from the last election or two is enormous, but the pendulum usually returns to the center of its own accord before long.  (The exception nationally was Clinton’s win in 1992 — one that we probably shouldn’t have won on paper — that was a testament to his political skills.  I will always be grateful to Clinton for that, despite his faults, because a fourth consecutive Republican term might well have broken the back of the Democratic Party.)

    Statewide Republicans can still win.  The blueprint remains the Schwarzenegger campaign in 2006 — divided Democrats and professing to be a different kind of Republican.  Add a lot more corporate money better hidden and deployed than were Whitman’s ham-fisted efforts, a Democratic candidate without a party unified behind him and with less canniness and ability to wait out being outspent than Brown had, a diminished union movement, and I’m not prepared to declare victory for the rest of the decade, let alone longer.

    Triumphalism is a danger for us activists.  We need a certain measure of it to continue to get out of bed in the morning.  But we shouldn’t believe it uncritically, lest the pratfall of 2010 be replayed here.

  2. when you could run as a moderate, business-friendly democrat? it’s not like you have to win a closed primary anymore.  

  3. I doubt the California Republican Party really is dead, for a few reasons.  

    1.  The various strands of conservative thought that make up the current iteration are alive and well in parts of the state, to the point that even non-entities like Damon Dunn and Tony Strickland received between 36-38% of the vote.

    2.  The institutional apparatus (including major party status and a link to a national party) that is the Republican Party still exists, and quite frankly is too valuable to be squandered.

    3.  The prospect of power makes compromise palatable to many an ardent ideologue; the same push for a share of the spoils that led the CRP to semi-embrace Ahnuld in 2006 will happen again.

    What I suspect will happen is a reshuffling of the power centers within the current CRP in an effort to marginalize the nativists. They will speak more in code about “creating local jobs for local workers” instead of the explicit Latino-bashing, for example.

    Even under the most optimistic scenarios such as painted here, the ambitious young men and women who currently comprise the Democrats’ “moderate” and “corporate” blocs will likely gravitate to the CRP label, simply because they can become part of the leadership rather than being on the outside.  They might profess more sympathy toward immigrants, marriage equality, and the like than the current Republicans, but they won’t act on it.  They will still carry the water for Big Water, NFL owners, and plastic bag makers, though, and the progressive agenda will continue to be hobbled at every turn.

  4. What’s this got to do with Meg?  Well, I think there would have been a different race if her Megness had supported Prop. 19.

    The Democratic Party, rightly or wrongly, is giving this opening to a savvy pragmatic Republican candidate.

    Or, is savvy pragmatic Republican candidate an oxymoron?

    A fluent Spanish-speaking Republican with libertarian leanings might just kick some ass in this state.  

  5. The GOP did well with Reagan and Schwarzenegger. People knew them and found them likable onscreen. Voters knew little about them and probably cared less. They just liked having a “star” in Sacramento. Of course I don’t see how even Ahnold could ever have won a Republican primary today.

    But doesn’t the top-two structure sort of turn primaries into general elections anyway? Isn’t that why some of the top “moderate” Republicans in the state–Schwarzenegger and Maldonado–backed it? It might be they hoped it would break the grip of the right wing on the GOP so that they could win again. Hard to say if it will work. But that seems like the strategy.

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