Republicans’ ‘Canary in the Coal Mine’

Once the GOP leader in the largest state in the country, California Assembly Member Chad Mayes left the party—and he has a warning for Republicans around the country.

Only a few short years ago, Chad Mayes was the Republican leader in the California State Assembly. Now he’s out of the party, running for reelection as an independent. Ahead of the Republican National Convention, he joins Edward-Isaac Dovere on the podcast The Ticket: Politics from the Atlantic to discuss the GOP and the long impact of Donald Trump.

Listen to their conversation here:

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Here’s a sample of their conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Edward-Isaac Dovere: The night Trump won, it seems like you knew right away that this was going to be a problem for California Republicans.

Chad Mayes: Absolutely. I was at the Republican headquarters in Sacramento. There was lots of cheering going on by many folks that were there. I and some of the other political folks that were there knew that this was going to be a disaster for the Republican Party in California. And it turned out to be.

Dovere: You’ve said that you felt as though a lot of the morality that you’d seen and believed about the Republican Party “suddenly seemed to vanish overnight.” What was it that vanished?

Mayes: I had grown up in a very conservative home. I’d been taught Christian values. I’d been taught that America was this exceptional country. And we’d never had somebody at the head of our party who was just completely morally bankrupt.

In fact, the moment I knew that I had a problem with Trump being our nominee was when there was a question asked in one of the debates when someone said, “You filed bankruptcy four times,” and his response was something to the effect of, “Well, yeah, I used the law to my advantage.” In my household, you would never file bankruptcy, or if you had to, it was because something devastating happened to you. You would never go out and think that you were going to use that to your advantage, because there’s somebody on the other end of that that was being harmed. You’d never swing your arm with the purpose of hitting somebody.

And it seems as though that’s what conservatism had all of a sudden become. At one point in time, conservatism was this idea of liberty, of rugged individualism. But at the same time, there was this deep sense about responsibility. It was both liberty and responsibility. You could swing your arm, but you certainly weren’t going to swing your arm to where it was going to connect with somebody else’s nose. What we’ve gotten to today is: I’m going to swing my arm. You got in the way. That’s bad on you, not on me. That’s not what conservatism always was, but it’s what it’s become.

Dovere: What strikes me, though, is that the modern Republican Party is sort of an outgrowth of the historical California Republican Party. The immigration rhetoric that animated Trump’s rise had a lot of roots in Pete Wilson, the former governor of California. You’ve had Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, who were not only economic conservatives, but Nixon pioneered the “Southern strategy.” How do you think that 2016 was this special breaking point? Because it seems like the historical Republican Party and the state party in California isn’t immune to the criticism that the modern party has faced.

Mayes: If you go back and look at it today, we know that, with Governor Pete Wilson and Prop 187, that was the high-water mark for California Republicans: There’s almost 38 percent of registered voters that call themselves Republicans. Today in 2020, 45 percent of the state’s registered voters are registered Democrat, and only 24 percent are registered Republican. It’s two to one. In fact, there are more “No Party Preference” registered voters in California than there are Republicans in California.

And for a number of reasons: California isn’t as white as it once was in the 1990s. There are now more Latinos in the state of California than there are white people. And because the Republican Party has now become some sort of white-grievance party, that’s what the national narrative is. So in a state like California, you just can’t compete. California really was the canary in the coal mine. If you go back to the ’90s and where California was then, it’s what the country is going to be 20, 25 years from now. I’ve tried to tell my colleagues across the country that if you think that somehow this is a winning strategy today, the brand, the toxicity that will come of this is going to last not just for five years or 10 years. It’s going to last for generations to come.