Lessons from 2012: Building a “New” Republican Party

Carl DeMaio Carl DeMaio

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Published in today’s OC Register.

Carl DeMaio: Building ‘new’ Republican Party in California

San Diego mayoral race offers glimpses of overhaul state party needs.

By Carl DeMaio

If you do not learn from your mistakes, you are destined to repeat them.

In the wake of last week’s staggering electoral losses, the California Republican Party must admit it did not merely have a bad cycle, but it faces a major crisis years in the making. And the crisis facing the California Republican Party is much more severe than the one confronting the national Republican Party.

Fortunately, with every crisis comes opportunity.

Indeed, there is a huge opportunity to evolve into a “New” California Republican Party that can offer hope not only to our troubled state, but to the nation as well.

Last week I lost the San Diego Mayor’s race 49%-51%. In a Democratic city where Republicans are actually a “third” party behind Independents, we outperformed Republican Party registration by 21%. It still was not enough.

My race offers some insight on the kind of crisis the old California Republican Party faces, and our relative progress against the tide against us offers some lessons on what we need to do more of in the next election.

Become the Party of Reform. Californians want fiscal responsibility – and an agenda that emphasizes reforming how tax dollars are spent to eliminate government waste. In the June primary, our Pension Reform Initiative carried every district in San Diego, and won a majority of Democrats and Independents.

The “New” Republicans should wrap themselves in a bold Reform Agenda, and given how poorly the state and local governments manage their finances, we shall find ample opportunities to make the case for reform.

Commit to Making Government Work Again. Californians like government, and voters want government to work again. Too often Republicans have taken an “end it, don’t mend it” stance.

The “New” Republicans can offer a vision of making government work that is still consistent with our principles. For example, let’s talk about how public-private partnerships can be used to provide better services, or how non-profits can provide better after-school programs than government-managed programs.

Move Beyond “No” and Offer Real Solutions. Independent voters in particular want solutions, not partisan fights. Republicans have consistently voted against tax increases and regulatory mandates, but rarely have offered credible solutions as alternatives. A few years ago one legislative leader who candidly told me “We’re the minority party, we don’t make policy and politically it is just safer to vote No on the majority’s ideas than offer our own.”

In San Diego, we defeated a massive tax increase and presented our own detailed “Roadmap to Recovery” budget that balanced without tax increases or service cuts. We took a risk to offer detailed policy solutions and it worked. Despite a Democrat majority on the City Council, many of our ideas got implemented.

The “New” Republicans should partner with a host of worthy state and local think tanks to craft detailed solutions to California’s problems. Offering concrete ideas to tackle tough problems comes with political blowback from some powerful groups, but then again Republicans have little more to lose in their current situation.

Become a Party of Inclusion. Californians have become ethnically and socially diverse – with exit polling showing only 54 percent of the 2012 electorate was white. Latino votes surged from 18 percent in 2008 to 22 percent in 2012. The Republican Party through sins of omission and commission has alienated Latinos, Blacks and gays – and they’ve virtually ignored Asians.

In San Diego this was a huge liability for us, and we never really overcame it. As a gay candidate, I had immense challenges even with the local gay community who simply could not accept I was a Republican. Immediately after the primary, we started a massive walk program targeting high-propensity Latino households. Some Latino houses were walked three times by Election Day, to go along with micro-targeted direct mail. In the end, the Republican brand was a non-starter.

“New” Republicans will have to demonstrate inclusiveness in all respects – and we must change the conversation to issues that unite with these communities, such as the “Reform Agenda.” We also need to find credible “brand ambassadors” from within these communities to begin to build trust and support in each of these communities.

Court the Next Generation. The California electorate is becoming younger each cycle, and Republicans have done an abysmal job winning these new votes.

In San Diego, the Democrats funded a massive voter registration drive at UCSD, resulting in thousands of new younger voters who overwhelmingly opted to register as Democrats. It’s a lot easier to register a first time voter in your party than to persuade someone to switch a party later on.

To compete for this next generation of voters, “New” Republicans have to understand how to engage them with messages that resonate and how to reach them using new media.

To implement these changes, we need leaders willing to learn from mistakes and courageous enough to try new things – bold things – that might make some Republicans a bit uncomfortable. In addition, we need to fund these changes with resources, ranging from branding and marketing efforts to voter registration drives.

The “New” Republican Party in California will not be born overnight, as this crisis was not created overnight. Fortunately, two years is a lifetime in politics – and the next few weeks can be a dynamic time of rebirth for California Republicans if they are willing to make major changes.

Carl DeMaio is a San Diego City Councilmember.

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