Forty years ago Jerry Brown won a Democratic primary defeating runner up Joseph Alioto, the longtime mayor of San Francisco, soundly. Brown then went on to defeat State Controller Houston Flornoy by a margin of less than three percent. Nationally, 1974 was a Democratic year as the Republican brand was badly tarnished by the Watergate scandal, but in California the scion of the state's most famous Democratic political family was barely able to squeak by to victory.
A lot has changed in California politics since then. After going Republican in every presidential election but one between 1952 and 1988, Democratic presidential nominees have carried the state, often with great ease in every presidential election from 1992 to the present. The state has also had two Democratic senators since 1992. Changing demographics in California, most notably the declining proportion of the population that is white have contributed to California's increasingly Democratic character, but that does not entirely explain what has happened to the Republican Party in California.
Jerry Brown initially served two terms as governor, but between 1982 and 2010, the governor's seat was more often than not in Republican hands. The only Democrat to win election to that office during that period, Gray Davis, was recalled, albeit on relatively flimsy pretexts in 2003 five years after first winning election as governor. Brown, of course, returned and won election as governor again after a 28-year odyssey during which he spent time in India, ran for the Democratic nomination for president in 1992, and served as mayor of Oakland and attorney general for the state of California. Now 40 years after winning the governor's seat the first time in a tough election, Brown faces no serious opposition in his bid for a fourth term.
Either Jerry Brown is an extraordinary politician or the California Republican Party is in bad shape. Most likely both these things are true. The Democratic Party dominance of statewide elections is now quite extreme. No Republican in California has come within ten points of a Democrat in a US senate race this century. Since the Republicans last won the state in a presidential election, only George W. Bush has come within ten points of carrying the state, losing 54-44 in 2004. The Democrats have also had strong majorities in both houses of the state legislature for close to 20 years.
The veritable collapse of the Republican Party in California is not news, but it is worth considering, particularly given the party's failure, again, to even have a serious campaign for governor in 2014. California is the most populous state in the country, but it was at the center of the Republican Party for most of the years from 1952-1992, a period of ascendancy for the Party nationally. The national ticket in most of those years included national politicians, notably Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan with roots in California. Many big states are aligned with one party, but California is different both because of the Republican's strong recent history there but also because the diversity of the state that makes it both a harbinger of what the country will become and a place that should be a battleground for competing ideas and visions. In recent years, however, the Republican Party was not made itself relevant in that battleground.
When California was a reasonably Republican-leaning state during most of the last few decades of the twentieth century, Republican ideologues and other pundits constantly told us that national trends started in California. The anti-tax movement, for example, began in California with Proposition 13 in 1978. Similarly, the right-wing backlash to civil rights gains for various group beginning in the mid-1960s, also had its roots in California where Ronald Reagan was elected governor on a very conservative platform back in 1966.
Although it is not described that way so much anymore, California may be a good indicator of what the US will look like in the next decades. The ethnic diversity of the state, the growing acceptance of a set of liberal social policies on issues ranging from medical marijuana to marriage equality, and a political minority that is disproportionately old, white and angry are all part of political life in California, and all bode very poorly for the Republican Party. Similarly, an enduring failure to nominate candidates that appeal beyond its base is also a problem for the Republican Party in California and nationally.
Although viewed outside of California as a left-winger, Jerry Brown has mostly governed as a centrist. While this has frustrated some on the left, it has also demonstrated that when the Republicans abandon the center, as they have in California, it is very easy for Democratic executives to govern, and get reelected, from the center.