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California Focus: State GOP can still avoid irrelevance

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From across California, the obituaries for the California Republican Party have come thick and fast ever since the November election. After all, the GOP’s onetime national stronghold in Orange County now lacks even a single Republican in Congress.

All statewide officeholders also are Democrats, from the governor right through the nominally nonpartisan state school superintendent. Democrats hold majorities of more than two-thirds in both houses of the Legislature, allowing them to pass any tax increase they like.

So the eulogies now being read over the seemingly dead body of the onetime Grand Old Party amount to piling on after Republicans’ worst defeat ever in California.

One veteran conservative commentator suggests the GOP should stop calling itself Republican and adopt some other label because the present one was poisonous for so many candidates. The party’s former leader in the state Assembly, Kristin Olson, opined in print that her party “is dead.”

But it doesn’t have to be that way. And a major Democratic operative has now outlined just how Republicans can recover in this state. A potential GOP recovery, though, would probably require its candidates to divorce themselves as much as possible from President Trump and his brand of government by insult, belittlement, braggadocio, whim and tweet.

If Republicans in California do as the Democrats did after their 2016 losses, they have a shot at making a significant comeback. But so far, the GOP is so enmeshed in feeling sorry for itself that there is little sign it will make the kind of effort Democrats did starting at the end of 2016 and carrying right through this fall’s election.

The first thing Democrats did then was select the Republican congressional seats they had a chance of winning. In the end, they took virtually all of those.

Their chief criterion was simple: Target districts where Hillary Clinton beat Trump, but which elected Republicans to Congress. Those included all the Orange County areas they flipped this fall, and three in the Central Valley. They also made a strong, successful effort to ensure they didn’t lose any of the 39 congressional seats they already held in California.

Republicans have plenty of potential targets for 2020, if they take even a cursory look. They might go after districts where GOP candidates led in Election Night counts, but lost when late mail and provisional ballots were counted.

Those include three Orange County districts that went Democratic this year after decades of Republican representation. The GOP also could examine districts like those of Democrats Ami Bera and Jerry McNerney, perpetual targets for them in the northern San Joaquin Valley where the incumbent Democrats rarely pull more than 53 percent of the vote, even in big Democratic years like 2018.

There is definite potential for Republican recovery. But only if the GOP adopts some of the tactics outlined in a post-election memo sent to reporters by Drew Godinich, regional press secretary for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

The DCCC, Godinich reported, started by making sure it had solid candidates. It then spent big money on primary campaigns to get those candidates into the fall runoff. Democrats also put local organizers into target districts just two weeks after Trump’s inauguration, while he was embroiled in feckless and false arguments over whether his inauguration crowd matched Barack Obama’s.

The DCCC then invested $30 million to register and turn out new voters from diverse ethnicities, women and younger voters known as millennials. It hired 11 full-time organizers to expand Latino and African-American voting, one reason those groups came out in larger numbers than almost any prior mid-term election.

And it made sure each target voter heard from Democrats more than 100 times in the 60 days prior to Nov. 6.

Still, it’s likely none of those things would have won for the Democrats if not for the negative presence of Trump, who loomed over the entire election.

So far, Republicans aren’t following up on any of this and show no signs of learning from the Democrats, while Trump appears unready to go away.

All of which means recovery is possible for the GOP. But only if it cleans up its act, and very soon.

Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com.