OAKLAND — The California-bashing has only just begun.
After defining California last week as a “land of discarded heroin needles,’’ rolling blackouts, voter fraud and sanctuary cities during their national convention, Republicans this week made clear they intend to make the blue state a prime campaign foil this fall.
Political strategists expect the pile-on to continue all the way to Nov. 3 because California crystallizes a messaging strategy that is likely to work for both President Donald Trump — and his party.
“The image we hear of California portrayed by a lot of speakers is exactly the kind of image that does appeal to base voters,” said GOP strategist Lanhee Chen, who advised presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio. “I do think it mobilizes them. I do think it’s an effective way of framing the contrast difference between Biden and socialism and Trump and free enterprise.’’
During the four-day GOP convention, California proved a kind of addictive popcorn to the parade of Republican speakers who couldn’t stop reaching for it. The convention was packed with a plethora of references to the nation’s most populous state — which is now an even more obvious target as the birthplace and home of U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice presidential nominee.
To the Trump faithful, the liberal West Coast state represents all that the president and his base of conservatives despise.
California state government is run entirely by Democrats, from its statewide officeholders to both legislative houses that have Democratic supermajorities. Its leaders have defended protections for undocumented immigrants, embraced renewable energy, imposed gun restrictions, backed labor unions and removed statues in the wake of racial justice protests, including one of Christopher Columbus in the state Capitol.
“The whole ‘cancel culture,’ political correctness,” Chen said, “all those themes that Republicans recoil at, are summarized in California — as an image, and as an icon.”
Republicans’ messaging seen by millions of Americans in the RNC convention this week relies on “the simple premise that under Democratic rule, California is a nice place to visit – but you wouldn’t want to live there,’’ said Hoover Institution fellow Bill Whalen, who advised former Gov. Pete Wilson.
“It’s the cost of living, but it’s also the direction California is headed under Big Government: endless taxation, schools that are beyond reform because of teachers union control of the legislation, the imbalance of power, one-party monochromatic rule, and constant social engineering,” he said.
The fall campaign comes as the state is facing calamities beyond the pandemic. California endured two days of rolling blackouts this month during a record heat wave. That was followed by lightning-sparked wildfires that torched more than 1.3 million acres in the state. And Trump has regularly pointed to homeless people on San Francisco streets as a reflection of liberal excess.
This week, Republican pundit Charlie Kirk targeted California as the birthplace of a robust innovation economy — but portrayed the tech industry as a dark force of destruction. “In this country, it means you can speak your mind without retribution,” he said, “without being kicked off of social media by a self-righteous censor in Silicon Valley.”
Trump campaign insider Kimberly Guilfoyle broke the internet on the convention’s first night when she presented a full-throated litany that bashed the state — which is now run by her ex-husband, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom.
“If you want to see the socialist Biden-Harris future for our country, just take a look at California,” roared Guilfoyle. “It is a place of immense wealth, immeasurable innovation, an immaculate environment, and the Democrats turned it into a land of discarded heroin needles in parks, riots in streets and blackouts in homes.”
But it is Trump himself who has repeatedly thrown red meat to his base with an anti-California strategy that Republicans believe resonates in swing states that don’t identify with blue coastal regions and wealthy young Silicon Valley elite.
Four years ago, he effectively the specter of California and sanctuary cities — in that case, the slaying of Kate Steinle in San Francisco, allegedly at the hands of an undocumented immigrant — as the foundation of his promise to protect America from anarchy in accepting the GOP nomination. Speaking of “violence in our streets,“ Trump promised then that “we will make America safe again. And we will make America great again.”
In his acceptance speech Thursday, Trump got his biggest laugh from supporters when he raised the spectre of California’s heavy reliance on renewable energy for its recent blackouts — warning that a Biden presidency would “abolish the production of American oil, coal, shale and natural gas,’’ and “lay waste” to the economies of heartland states while costing millions of fossil-fuel jobs.
“These same policies led to crippling power outages in California just last week. Everybody saw that. Tremendous power outage. Nobody’s seen anything like it, but we saw it last week in California. How can Joe Biden claim to be an ally of the light when his own party can’t even keep the lights on?“ Trump said to chortles from the audience on the South Lawn.
That deepening antipathy to California among Republicans is a marked shift since the state was home to the Reagan Revolution in the 1970s, when almost 80 percent of California residents were white. Today, in the majority-minority state, whites comprise just 37 percent of the population, outranked by the fastest-growing and dominant ethnic group, Latinos, at 40 percent.
The Latino desertion of the GOP over a generation has been a key factor in the now-withered California GOP’s third-party status, falling behind independent registrants after Trump became the party’s standard bearer.
Both Trump and Republicans have effectively railed at Hollywood, the center of the entertainment universe, in portraying the state as a bastion of comfortable “coastal elites” — epitomized by Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s critique that Democrats “want us to be just like California — right down to tofu and silicon and dyed hair.’’
A 2012 Public Policy Poll showed that Americans put California dead last among their favorite states — and it wasn’t even close.
“What you saw in the Republican convention overall was a lot of cultural cues to conservatives — largely in the middle of the country, where there is a longstanding sense that people on the coasts look down on them,’’ said Chicago-based Democratic strategist Larry Grisolano, who served as director of paid media and opinion research for Obama for America and Obama-Biden 2008.
Trump and Republicans are banking on swing-state voters in the Midwest and South being swayed by arguments that Biden and Harris will turn the nation into California.
Already, Trump this month appealed to supporters in Pennsylvania by connecting California’s two days of blackouts to the state’s phaseout of fossil fuels — and said the Democratic ticket would do the same elsewhere. Pennslyvania produces the second most natural gas in the nation among states and the third most coal, according to the federal government.
Republicans are also banking on appealing to suburban parents on the school closure argument in swing states. They could use California’s vast campus shutdown as an example of labor union control. The Republican National Convention featured former California teacher Rebecca Friedrichs, who said, “Democrats stand with deceptive teachers unions who pick on loving teachers and little kids.”
Similar arguments tying Biden-Harris to California could drive donors who don’t want to see federal regulations and taxes on par with what the Golden State has.
The cultural dominance of Hollywood, home to one of the country’s most reliable Democratic ATMs, is resented by many in middle America as a source of moral decay and political power. The state’s urban regions like Berkeley and Los Angeles, home to some of the world’s greatest state-run universities, are viewed as hotbeds of radicalism and liberal thought.
Adding to the grudge is the reality that the nation’s most populous state, with its 40 million residents, is a cultural trendsetter — a place of innovation that has birthed entreprenuerial giants like Google, Twitter, Tesla and Space X, while being on the forefront of political upheaval in movements like legalized same-sex marriage and recreational pot.
“A lot of the issues that you used to think of California as being radical and out of the mainstream — so far to the left — are now mainstream values, by and large,’’ noted Kurt Bardella, the former spokesman for Rep. Darrell Issa and Breitbart News, and now a Washington D.C. based political analyst.
Democratic strategist Dan Newman, an adviser to Gov. Gavin Newsom, counters that as they continue to punch away at California, Republicans are revealing their own outdated strategies for winning back the White House.
“It is, at this point, a reflexive move for Republicans. They’re having trouble believing that what they’re increasingly trashing as California values are actually American values,’’ Newman says.
“Trump is running to be president of George Wallace’s Alabama,’’ he says, “and the reality is, America is looking much more like Gavin Newsom’s California.”