SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – With a landmark climate change program collapsing, California’s Democratic governor was stuck. Needing just a handful of votes to save a sunsetting but lucrative emissions tax, Jerry Brown shrewdly appealed across the aisle to an up-and-coming Republican assemblyman to help rescue the staple of California’s global warming agenda.
Breaking with his party’s aversion to passing taxes, Southern California Republican Chad Mayes delivered seven Republican votes to extend the current cap-and-trade program through 2030.
Brown’s party called the 2017 deal a “legislative unicorn” and said Mayes’ bipartisanship was courageous.
But the rare show of cooperation in the Legislature didn’t sit well with California conservatives. Party traditionalists quickly turned against Mayes, and a month after the deal with Brown forced him to step down as Assembly Republican leader.
Nearly a year later, Mayes stands by his controversial vote. He says the California Republican party, which hasn’t won a statewide election in over 10 years, must transform to reach voters in the nation’s most progressive state. With fellow Republicans challenging his seat, the 41-year-old Mayes paints himself not as a candidate spurned by his party, but as a man who can stop the GOP’s “death spiral.”
“The old way hasn’t been working; [Republicans] have to accept the fact that what we’re doing isn’t working,” Mayes said during an interview at a Sacramento coffee shop. “We’re continually losing voters, not gaining.”
Mayes and numerous congressional Republican candidates suddenly find themselves scrambling to defend their seats in traditionally conservative districts, largely due to President Donald Trump’s unpopularity in the Golden State. Opportunistic donors prop up fresh Democratic candidates in various congressional districts. Emboldened Democrats have ventured into Republican strongholds, hoping to flip control of the U.S. House in November.
Democrats have targeted over 60 Republican-held congressional seats nationwide in the midterm elections, seven in California. They’ve put on notice GOP incumbents like Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of Orange County, Rep. Jeff Denham from the Central Valley, and Rep. Duncan Hunter of San Diego, while chasing empty seats in two other congressional districts.
Republicans used to hold great political power in the nation’s most populous state, producing presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. The recent list of two-term Republican governors includes George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
But after an extended stretch of declining party registration, Republicans represent just 25 percent of the state’s registered voters. The miserable numbers has the party bracing for the chance that the November ballot won’t have a Republican gubernatorial or U.S. Senate candidate.
Voter turnout in the various congressional races would surely dwindle without a Republican candidate at the top of the ballot and could prompt a “blue wave” in Congress, according to Republican strategist and author Tony Quinn.
“The Republican party in California has pretty much collapsed since Schwarzenegger left office,” Quinn said in a phone interview. “There’s just not any room anymore for the hard-right in California, it just isn’t there.”
Republican dysfunction took center stage last weekend at the party’s state convention in San Diego. Delegates split on who to endorse in the state’s governor’s race, giving little guidance to GOP voters deciding between San Diego businessman John Cox and Orange County Assemblyman Travis Allen in the June primary.
Mayes – who interned for former Republican U.S. Senator John Ashcroft of Missouri and attended the evangelical hot spot Liberty University – is breaking from the state and national party’s rhetoric in favor of a moderate tone. He’s formed a group called New Way California and wants to diversify the Republican electorate by targeting independents, conservatives and even moderate Democrats.
Without offering specific policy ideas during a 30-minute interview, Mayes said Republicans must overcome stereotypes that cast the GOP as a party of climate deniers and chauffeurs to corporate greed. He warns that the lack of new voters has the party in a “death spiral.”
Over the last few months, his group has released two internet ads, one featuring a speech by Ronald Reagan aimed at minority voters.
“The party needs to reflect what voters want and accept the fact that what we’re doing is wrong,” said Mayes. “The Democrats are still on offense; I want to go on offense.”
If Mayes’ centrist approach is successful and he’s re-elected in November by his constituents from Riverside and San Bernardino counties, it could prove as a model for California Republicans in future elections.
The fledgling New Way California has attracted the support of two prominent Republicans who have also been accused of straying from the party’s line. Schwarzenegger and Ohio Gov. Jeff Kasich spoke at the coalition’s debut event in March.
“Today we are the Titanic after it hit the iceberg, but before the last bit of the ship submerged,” Schwarzenegger said at the event in Los Angeles. “But unlike the Titanic, we might be able to save Leonardo DiCaprio before he goes under.”
The former governor, the last Republican to hold California’s top office, signed the bill in 2006 that created California’s cap-and-trade program.
Under the system, businesses must buy permits in a free market model in order to exceed carbon emission standards. Revenue is generated from quarterly auctions and the proceeds go to projects to reduce emissions and to major infrastructure projects, including the high-speed rail project. Supporters say taxing businesses for emitting greenhouse gases is the most effective way to encourage companies to invest in clean, more efficient technology.
But supporting the climate change program has led many rank-and-file Republicans to call Schwarzenegger and Mayes a name no GOP diehard wants to hear: RINO, or Republican in Name Only.
The influential California anti-tax group Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association said Mayes posing with Brown at a press conference after the cap-and-trade extension dismayed state conservatives. The group calls Mayes the “chief architect of the largest gas tax increase in state history” and considers him a party outcast.
“We live in one of the highest-taxed states in America and for anybody to give up on any tax issue, for Republicans, is too bad,” said Jon Coupal, association president. “What happened to [Mayes] is right in front of him and he understands that you just can’t do that.”
Instead of backing Mayes for a third term, Coupal says his group is endorsing Andrew Kotyuk, a Navy veteran, small business owner and Republican.
Kotyuk pitches himself to potential voters in desert towns like Palm Springs, Indian Wells and Yucaipa as a “proud conservative” ready to lower taxes and fight against California’s sanctuary policies.
Along with the taxpayer association, Kotyuk has been endorsed by the political action committee Reform California and former state Senate Republican leader Dennis Hollingsworth.
While Republican infighting ultimately cost Mayes his party leadership post, he says he doesn’t feel betrayed by Republicans that left him after the cap-and-trade vote. Mayes believes social media helped spread lies and create the groundswell that has him in a tough bid for re-election.
Mayes may have lost his leadership post in Sacramento, but he claims the deal with the governor hasn’t changed his conservative principles.
“I’m a pro-life, pro-Second Amendment conservative that cares about people,” Mayes said.