GOP is a party zombie that flourished during the 2003 recall
In October 2003, I was working at the CBS branch in Bakersfield to run the Assignment Office and help produce our political coverage. It was an exciting time to be both in the news and in politics.
On our own news set, country music icon Buck Owens, who made Bakersfield his adopted home, gifted Arnold Schwarzenegger an autographed guitar. I vividly remember the energy and excitement that filled the air. One of the loudest campaign events I have ever experienced was when the so-called “governor” campaigned with the man who was then known as the “mayor of America,” the former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. There was a palpable feeling that this could be a fresh start, both for the state but also for the Republican Party. Even though we were in the midst of an unprecedented political upheaval in California, the environment was positive and enthusiastic.
During his victory speech, Schwarzenegger said he would “reach out to Republicans, Democrats and Independents, to those who supported the recall and those who did not, those who supported me today and those who did not. I want to reach out to everyone, young and old, rich and poor, people of all religions, colors and nationalities. I want to be the governor of the people. I want to represent everyone.
In many ways, the 2003 recall election was a battle between the more moderate and conservative factions in the state. Schwarzenegger, then a member of the Kennedy family, became the standard bearer for moderates while then state senator Tom McClintock stepped forward as the Conservative choice. McClintock openly questioned Schwarzenegger’s loyalty to the party, saying, “He’s a man who just a few years ago said he was ashamed of being a Republican.
Schwarzenegger, the moderate, won decisively. It was the last time the Golden State would elect a Republican governor.
Two decades later, the portrait of the Republican Party is very different. In 2003, Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield was the Republican leader of the Assembly who attached himself to Schwarzenegger and helped lead the fight for the “moderates” of the party. Today, House Minority Leader McCarthy has shrouded himself in the mantle of conspiracy theories and undemocratic identity politics.
Schwarzenegger calls the effort McCarthy embraced to overthrow a free and fair “mad and evil” election. Such rhetoric is enough to get you kicked out of McCarthy’s management team, just ask Rep Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.). A new CNN poll revealed that 59% of Republican voters believe endorsing the “big lie” that Donald Trump won the 2020 election is “important” to being a Republican. In just two decades, Schwarzenegger went from being a Republican Party flag bearer to an outcast who probably couldn’t beat a character like Now-Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Elk Grove) in a GOP primary.
In what has become a familiar cycle, this iteration of the Republican Party will make a big splash, raise a lot of money, make headlines and end up losing.
This is what happened nationally in the mid-term 2018. This is what happened in the Louisiana and Kentucky governors races in 2019. This is what happened with the presidential race in 2020 and this is what happened in the Georgia Senate races which gave Democrats a majority in the Senate in January. Time and time again, Republicans have rushed to the far right, bowing to the politics of fear and division, only to lose. They have mastered the ability to grab defeat from the clutches of victory, leaving behind a party that year after year radicalizes and also becomes smaller and smaller.
As California goes, so does the country, the saying goes. This second gubernatorial recall election should be instructive for Republicans nationwide. If recent history is any indication, the GOP will continue the failed cycle of learning the wrong lessons from defeat and continue its embrace of extremism and conspiracy that will only push it further away from the mainstream of this country. .
Kurt Bardella is a contributing Opinion writer. He is a senior advisor to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and a former aide to Republican Congressman from California Darrell Issa and Brian Bilbray. @KurtBardella