California has been a one-party state for longer than most memories will allow. For four decades, with the brief exception from 1995 to 1996, when the GOP held the state Senate by two seats, the California Legislature has been the exclusive kingdom of Democrats. The last Republican moment of clout was 1969-70, when Ronald Reagan was governor and the party held both the Assembly and the Senate. Three GOP governors have been elected since, but only six Republicans have held statewide office since 1998, while Democrats have occupied 23.
The congressional delegation is a reflection of the statehouse. Both senators are Democrats, and voters sent 39 Democrats to the House. Only a little more than a quarter of California voters are registered Republicans, so it’s hardly a surprise that the Democrats exercise such dominance.
This single-party regime, however, has led to a destructive public-policy agenda, along with inattention to pressing needs. The state’s political class has advocated vanity projects such as Governor Jerry Brown’s costly and needless high-speed rail plan; neglected a tangle of transportation infrastructure that is now going to cost $52 billion to repair; failed to address effectively a housing crisis that drove the cost of homes out of reach for many; fed a public-employee pension plan threatening to bankrupt the state; and created a tax structure that is pushing out the middle class. California’s governing party now proposes to force a single-payer health-care system on residents and promotes unyielding regulation on business and development, impeding job creation. Progressive leadership in Sacramento and at the local level is obsessed with “resisting” the Trump administration and fighting climate change.
California’s single-party rule has damaged the state to the point that it hasn’t been able to escape unflattering comparisons with its neighbor to the south. “Forty years ago, Mexico was a one-party dictatorship . . . hobbled by slow growth, soaring inequality, endemic corruption and dead politics,” writes demographer Joel Kotkin. “California, in contrast, was considered a model American state, with a highly regarded Legislature, relatively clean politics, a competitive political process and a soaring economy. Today these roles are somewhat reversed.”
When one party has such a dominant political position, destructive public policy is not the only problem. Corruption has fewer hurdles when members of the ruling party believe that they stand above the law. Democrats recently passed new rules governing the timing of recall elections solely to protect one of their members, State Senator Josh Newman, who is facing a recall. But corruption in California Democratic politics is not new: Rod Wright, Leland Yee, and Ron Calderon were all elected Democratic legislators who thought their party’s power gave them license to break the law. Two wound up in federal prison, the other in the Los Angeles County jail.
The political status quo deserves to be disrupted in California, though it’s unlikely that anyone from the ranks of elected Republicans can break the Democrats’ grip on power. What’s needed is someone who would effectively and unapologetically oppose the agenda of the majority party but who is also an outsider; whose appeal is cross-partisan; who understands Silicon Valley, which has immense political strength; and who is sympathetic to the cause of attracting more business and capital to areas outside of the tech center.
Three years ago, Republican Neel Kashkari, a former Goldman Sachs investment banker who didn’t align fully with establishment Republicanism and had never held elected office, shook the political foundations a bit when he ran against Jerry Brown. Kashkari took only 40 percent of the vote, but maybe he was the Goldwater candidate who laid the groundwork for another, who will truly rock California politics.
Peter Thiel is no stranger to disruption. The PayPal cofounder supported Donald Trump in 2016, spoke at the Republican National Convention (where he announced that he is proud to be gay), and worked on Trump’s transition team. He’s been part of one of the most convulsing events in U.S. political history. “Like Trump,” Michelle Cottle wrote in The Atlantic just before last year’s election, “Thiel himself takes great pride in being a disruptive force. He favors revolutionary ideas and people with big plans for blowing things up and remaking the world.”
Thiel has said on multiple occasions that he is not running for governor next year, though there were indications early in 2017 that he might enter the race. If he were to run, he could be the candidate who would break the Democrats’ political stranglehold, the force who could revive the moribund California Republican Party sufficiently for it to challenge Democratic dominance. But even if Thiel decides not to seek the governorship, it’s clear that the Golden State needs someone equally willing to challenge conventional thinking and promote a new approach to the major fiscal, economic, and development questions that California faces. The alternative is more of the same.