Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) ventured into the belly of the liberal beast Sunday, hitting out at California while visiting the state.
DeSantis contended during a speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., that the Golden State was “hemorrhaging population.”
This, he argued, was evidence that the “experiment” with progressive politics in one of the most liberal states in the nation was failing.
“The American people as a whole in some ways have voted about this experiment, because they voted with their feet,” DeSantis said. “And if you look over the last four years, we’ve witnessed a great American exodus from states governed by leftist politicians, imposing leftist ideology and delivering poor results.”
On one level, those remarks were the latest chapter in DeSantis’s ongoing political feud with California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D).
Last summer, Newsom, coasting to reelection, dropped some cash on a TV ad to run in Florida. The ad alleged that “freedom is under attack” by leaders like DeSantis, whom Newsom characterized as “banning books, making it harder to vote, restricting speech in classrooms, even criminalizing women and doctors.”
The Newsom ad called on disaffected Floridians to “join us in California.”
A DeSantis spokesperson at that time hit back by calling California “a hellhole” and Newsom’s ad “a pathetic smear.”
On Sunday, DeSantis began his remarks by noting drily, “your governor’s very concerned about what we’re doing in Florida, so I figured I had to come by.”
But DeSantis’s remarks were also emblematic of something broader than a row with just one governor.
Instead, they are part of a pattern in which the Golden State has become an inviting target for conservatives. For a significant share of the GOP grassroots, California has become synonymous with “wokeness,” high taxes, over-regulation, crime and homelessness.
“Look at the vast majority of elected officials in California —there’s a big blue ‘D’ after their name” said Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor emeritus who specializes in political communication.
“Governor, senators, most of the congresspeople, most of the mayors — it is very blue, very liberal and, for Republicans, very filled with the problems that are endemic to liberal states.”
So far as voting behavior goes, that point is certainly true.
California has not backed a Republican for the White House since it voted for then-Vice President George H.W. Bush in 1988. President Biden carried the state by almost 30 points in 2020.
No Republican has won a Senate seat in California since Sen. Pete Wilson won reelection in 1988.
Wilson went on to become governor — where his name will be forever associated with Proposition 187, a ballot measure that passed in 1994. Proposition 187 pushed a harder line than previously on illegal immigration, holding that unauthorized immigrants should be blocked from most services provided through the state.
Though it passed, it never went fully into effect — and it is generally perceived as having done enormous harm to the GOP’s political fortunes in California by alienating Latino voters.
Some Democrats say Wilson’s stances were crucial in changing the political complexion of the state.
“When they got into the whole proposition wars on immigration, when Pete Wilson was governor, that was the pivot,” said California-based Democratic strategist Bill Carrick. “He sort of shifted the Republicans into a big-time anti-immigration message and Prop. 187 was scary to a lot of people in the state.”
Carrick also noted that the same shift has the perverse effect of making it easier for conservatives like DeSantis or former President Trump to attack California. Trump made a habit of jabbing at the state and its major cities, such as calling San Francisco “worse than a slum” at a 2020 rally.
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In short, Carrick suggested, Republicans can’t really fare any worse in the Golden State, no matter what they say.
“They are so politically irrelevant in any general election, from president to statewide races to congressional races. So they have nothing to lose,” Carrick said, “You can beat up California because you don’t have any chance in hell of getting any Electoral College votes there. There is no political downside.”
It’s easy to forget these days that California produced two of the Republican presidents of the modern era, Reagan and President Nixon.
Potential presidential contenders like DeSantis seem to believe — perhaps rightly — that the state’s significant number of Republican voters don’t take attacks on the state personally.
Trump still received more than 6 million votes in California, even while suffering his 2020 drubbing, for example.
Above all, California has become a cultural touchstone of liberalism.
The state is, after all, not only home to former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D) and a host of other liberal figureheads but to the entertainment industry and Silicon Valley.
As a conservative target, Berkovitz noted, “California gets bonus points for being the home to the liberal cultural machine, particularly Hollywood. So much of this battle is cultural as well as purely political.”
Given DeSantis’s appetite for fighting the culture wars on every possible issue, it’s little surprise that he has California in his sights.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.