How California Could Bust Up the Two-Party System
"There’s a better way."
By: The Editorial Board, The New York Times
California’s Republican Party is in crisis. Voters are leaving it in droves, its candidates haven’t won a statewide election in more than a decade and its lawmakers are likely to lose several important elections this year. Yet many of the party’s leaders and lawmakers seem unwilling to make the kind of substantive changes that would broaden its appeal. Its candidates for governor, for example, are competing on their fealty to President Trump, when more than two-thirds of Californians who are registered to vote disapprove of him.
The G.O.P.’s problems in the state are a symptom of the toxic political extremism that has forced sensible centrists to the margins of the party throughout the country. But in this problem there is an opportunity, one that California Republicans are in a singular position to seize: a chance to build a sustainable third party.
At least some Republicans in the state, chief among them former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, have been trying to push the G.O.P. to adopt more mainstream ideas and policies. This group includes people like Chad Mayes, who was ousted as the party’s Assembly leader after working with Democrats to reauthorize a landmark cap-and-trade program, and Kevin Faulconer, the mayor of San Diego.
But they are struggling to make headway against a party establishment that refuses to acknowledge that it is on the wrong track, let alone take action to change. Republicanism, even in California, has become inseparable from Trumpism because most of the party’s leaders and lawmakers are more focused on catering to its far-right base and elite donors than on speaking to or for the majority of Americans.
There’s a better way. Mr. Schwarzenegger and other reform-minded Republicans ought to create a new party that can woo independent voters, former Republicans and even disaffected Democrats. At the start of this year, barely a quarter of registered voters in California said they were Republicans, down from more than a third in 1997. At the same time, the number of voters in the state who say they have no party preference has more than doubled, to about 25 percent. This strongly suggests that most people who have left the Republican Party have not become Democrats and would be open to a center-right political party.
If a new California-based party can win votes and legislative seats, it could send a signal to politicians around the country that moderation can be a bankable political strategy, helping to break the vise grip of tribal politics that has turned so much of national politics into a blood sport and made it impossible for Congress to pass substantive bipartisan legislation.
American politics has tended to be hostile terrain for the idealists and romantics who have started third parties or mounted independent campaigns for the presidency, governorships and other elected positions. Most such efforts fail, and political experts say that a Californian third party made up primarily of former Republicans would have difficulty raising money. Many conservative donors would fear alienating congressional Republicans from California, like Representative Kevin McCarthy, the House majority leader, who is angling to be the next speaker. What’s more, there may not be enough politicians willing or able to spend years in the political wilderness building a durable party.
That said, if a third party has a chance anywhere in the United States, it’s in California. The state allows the two candidates who get the most votes in a so-called open primary, regardless of party affiliation, to advance to the general election. This should, in theory, make it easier for centrist and independent candidates who appeal to both right and left, like Mr. Schwarzenegger, who has never neatly fit into the Republican Party and is often the target of potshots from Mr. Trump. One former Republican, Steve Poizner, is already running as an independent for state insurance commissioner, a position he held from 2007 to 2011. That decision seems wise, given that the Republican candidates for governor and senator will probably not be among the top two vote-getters in the state’s primary on June 5.
It helps, too, that an independent commission, rather than legislators, draws California’s electoral districts, making its districts more competitive than in other states.
Skeptics might argue that a new party would still be a minority force that would struggle to stand up to the Democrats. Nearly 45 percent of the state’s voters were registered as Democrats in January, down from 47 percent in 1997. That suggests that candidates for a centrist third party could win races that most conservative Republicans have no shot at. Plus, Californians’ interest in a third party has increased in recent years; a December 2017 poll by the Public Policy Institute of California found that 60 percent of adults thought both of the major parties were doing such a poor job that another party was needed, up from 46 percent in 2004.
A new center-right party in California would also serve as a check on single-party rule and all the pitfalls that can come with that form of government. Like Mr. Schwarzenegger, who, as governor, cut deals with Democrats and took seriously problems like climate change, lawmakers from this new party could end up wielding greater influence than their mere number in the Legislature would suggest is possible. They might also come up with creative solutions to pressing problems like the lack of affordable housing that Democrats like Gov. Jerry Brown have struggled to address.
Talk of third parties can seem like wishful thinking. But it shouldn’t in California, which prides itself on being home to disruptive businesses, pathbreaking artists and eclectic thinkers. The state’s Republicans now have a chance to help break the dysfunctional duopoly that is the American political system, and they should take it.