LOS ANGELES— California used to be as red as its pinot noir.
Which is to say: slightly, but decidedly and famously. The launchpad of Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, as well as latter-day projects such as “the Governator,” that all seem like yesterday’s news in 2022. Yes, large swaths of the Golden State outside of the major metros are quite conservative. And indeed, America seems poised to soon swap one Californian speaker of the House, a Democrat from San Francisco, for another, a Republican from Bakersfield. Also true, many of Donald Trump’s team in office (from Steve Bannon to National Security Advisor Robert C. O’Brien, Stephen Miller to Orange County’s own Mike Pompeo, to the wider media ecosystem) had bonafide California roots.
But Trump as a candidate, and as a president, hardly visited the place…and who could blame him? But large numbers and lands of wonky promise are weird things: Trump literally received more Californian votes for president in 2020 than any other Republican presidential candidate has. And despite its reputation as a leader of resistance, California saw “more pro-Trump crowds than any other state during the president’s term in office,” the Los Angeles Times grimly noted on the day Trump was booted from Washington in 2021. Still, Bannonism would seem an odd fit for Laguna Beach, or as the former White House chief strategist himself once said, on why he stopped residing in the area: “Bad vibes.”
But could California Republicans and independents be the ultimate beneficiaries of “the vibe shift”?
There has been cautious optimism from Democrat haters before, only for them to swiftly suffer humiliation. Case in point: the disastrous performance of California conservative eminence grise Larry Elder, “the Sage of South Central,” in last year’s gubernatorial recall. Still, that was before the full fallout from Afghanistan, the comeuppance to the White House on inflation, eight-dollar gas, and the astonishing sight of the parked-ships supply chain crunch I saw firsthand dotting the paradisiacal sunset in Huntington Beach last fall.
Agitants in a more conservative direction caution that any “return to form” may take election cycles, and not just this one. Still, the state’s demographics are striking: notably Hispanic and Asian at a time when the Democrats are plainly bleeding those votes. And the state-level and national mood is as sour as ever. As a contemporary in San Francisco once remarked, “California is still the future. The future just sucks.” Or as Republican candidate for Senate Jon Elist told me, “California is worth fighting for.”
Elist, 37, is potentially in poll position in Tuesday’s “jungle primary” to take on appointed incumbent Alex Padilla, a Democrat, in the general election in the fall. He told me he’s been somewhat frustrated by the apathy of conservative bigwigs in the state, loath to dispense with resources in a Blue Mecca, considering themselves exiles in their own land. He attributes Elder’s poor performance, yes, to a vibe shift so to speak, but also to a high number of Republican voters who stayed home in 2021, believing the election integrity frustrations out of Mar-A-Lago. It is a line I’ve not heard so much before in real life. It is, of course, always the anxiety of Mitch McConnell, or a Mitt Romney, and the voter fraud narrative did plausibly cost the GOP two Senate seats in Georgia. But Elist says he cares about the subject on two fronts: you’ve got to vote, and the establishment has to care about making election integrity a priority: “voter ID,” “poll observers,” the works, “this should not be partisan.”
As anecdotal as it gets: Most Americans seem unhappy, but what, exactly, does opposing the Democrats mean?
Conservative elites, such as they are, can’t even agree on the subject, the whole “vision thing” as George H.W. Bush once put it. Rising star Nate Hochman posited in the New York Times over the weekend that the Culture War is alive and well, but this time, it is far less religious. It’s a piece you should read.
Hochman himself in the piece denounces “the Republican porn star,” Brandi Love, who caused a minor brouhaha by both attending and then got booted from a right-leaning event last year. But he concedes his religious conservative side of things is but a coalition partner, and not necessarily the one calling the shots, in any effort to overthrow Democratic hegemony. And, indeed, the Culture War is different this go ’round, and potentially one the right can win: not gay marriage and national abortion bans, but should we teach transexuality in preschool?
Hochman the native Oregonian knows his neighboring California. Elist, a Princeton and Stanford graduate who was mentored by Condaleeza Rice, is now in an interesting niche of medical devices sales. As Elist told me: he is “going to have to sell a lot more penile implants” to make his mark.
For now, for many Californians, the order of the day is the first thing they see in the morning when they step outside their doorsteps (if they’re lucky to have one): a society in disrepair. Homelessness. Off-the-rails drug use. Anomie and alienation. Everyone knows it; it’s only a matter of if they deny it. Ever the cultural Machiavellian, comedic grandee Bill Maher’s guests over the weekend here in the City of Angels were Douglas Murray, the elegant author of the subtly-titled The War on the West and Michael Shellenberger, the independent gubernatorial aspirant and author of San Fransicko. If Republicans won’t seize this mantle, anyone willing to call themselves not-a-Democrat, or all but, will.
Elist says he could surprise against Padilla, who he notes has abysmal name recognition for a man who has been in politics for a quarter-century. Padilla, frankly, seems like sort of a non-entity. More prominently, ex-Republican billionaire Rick Caruso, a nominal Democrat, is the favorite to take the L.A. mayor’s mansion in downtown. His is a law-and-order message, backed by Kim Kardashian and Elon Musk—say what you will, the duo have an eye for winners.
The conservative Hoover Institution’s own Lanhee Chen is making a concerted effort for California controller and looks like the man to beat, winning even the L.A. Times’ endorsement. And in a development that would warm the late Andrew Breitbart’s heart, ten years after his stunning death in Beverly Hills, literal Weather Underground scion Chesa Boudin, the Sorosist D.A. of San Francisco, looks poised for downfall in the world’s most beautiful and benighted city.
There are, of course, other races here too. There is even another Nathan Hochman, who thinks he’s got a shot at being state attorney general. Once upon a time, in the last Republican midterm wave election, one Kamala Harris almost blew this race. And Southern California is a panoply of promised land for the GOP. For anyone who dreams of a “working class, multiethnic party,” there are conservative Asian American congresswomen and Hispanic veteran House members galore. And take Kevin Kiley, like Elist also 37, but from up north near Sacramento, who passed on running for governor again this year and instead is gunning for Congress. In my own view, he’d be a rare cogent voice in the nation’s lower chamber.
For a Republican Party toying with making “nationalism” its official credo, it might not be insane to include its most populous, most powerful, and politically disparate state. Certainly, Californication is never the boring move.