Repeated battles for the soul of California’s Republican Party began in earnest in 1968, when the ultra-conservative state Schools Superintendent Max Rafferty bested moderate U.S. Sen. Thomas Kuchel in a June primary election and went on to lose badly to Democrat Alan Cranston, who would then be re-elected three times.
The newest split in this party that began by advocating freedom over slavery is about immigration, with moderate elements in the state GOP wanting some sort of pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and the conservative wing holding they are all criminals who should have no rights or privileges.
It’s a reflection of a national battle first symbolized in 1964 by the fight over Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater’s nomination for president, one that still sees state parties all over America severely divided almost 50 years later.
In those days, the battle was over segregated housing, voting rights and what was euphemistically called “states’ rights,” the party’s conservative wing arguing that states should be able to restrict voting, allow landlords to discriminate on the basis of race or religion and more.
Today’s conservative Republicans say they discriminate against no one and want merely to limit government intrusions on individual rights, while insisting that no illegal act – including sneaking across a border – should be rewarded.
“The GOP divide is serious and real,” writes Stephen Frank, conservative blogger and former president of the California Republican Assembly. “Issues like amnesty and abortion have so divided the party that folks on both sides of those issues say if they lose, they walk.”
Already about 14 percent behind Democrats among registered voters, the state’s GOP can ill afford to have anyone opt out. But Frank, strongly against both abortion and what conservatives call amnesty, claims that when Republican voters “no longer see a difference between the two major parties, (they) say no to the GOP.” He says that’s happened since 14 GOP senators voted for the omnibus immigration bill now languishing in the House of Representatives.
But House members have long been moved more by what’s happening in their districts than anything else. If they alienate their constituents, they can’t survive.
So it makes sense that Republican Jeff Denham, whose district includes Central Valley cities like Tracy, Manteca and Turlock, has lately spoken in favor of “top to bottom immigration reform.” About 44 percent of residents in his district – a swing one since new boundaries were drawn – are Latino.
By contrast, only about 20 percent of residents in the district of fellow GOPer Dana Rohrabacher of Huntington Beach are Latino and Rohrabacher adamantly opposes any law granting any sort of path to citizenship for the undocumented. The overwhelming white Anglo majority in his district makes it among the nation’s most conservative.
Their colleague and party mate, David Valadao of Visalia, meanwhile, called the Senate immigration bill “monumental,” saying he is committed to “developing a reasonable, responsible immigration plan.” No coincidence, probably, that 67 percent of his district’s population is Latino, including about half its registered voters.
For the most part, this split does not carry over to abortion, the other litmus test for Frank and his fellow conservative leaders. Almost every Republican is pro-life. Yet, the state’s Republican convention last year voted only narrowly to keep the party’s strong anti-abortion platform plank. So there’s disagreement on that, too.
California is not unique. In states as varied as Maine and Alaska, state GOP officials have been forced out lately while their parties – like California’s – face financial problems. “There’s been a lot of division and disharmony in the Republican Party,” Maine’s new GOP chairman, Rick Bennett, told a reporter.
But Frank believes the real danger to the party lies in what might happen if the Republican-controlled House passes any immigration bill containing a route to citizenship, which is probably necessary to get Senate concurrence and become law.
If no such law passes, plenty of Latino voters in districts represented by Republicans will vote against the GOP. Of course, many would anyway.
But if enough Republicans do go along and Frank proves correct, a large segment of base GOP voters could stay home next year and beyond, which means the party faces consequences either way, and might as well search its soul and do what it believes just and moral.
Thomas Elias is a California author. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.