California politics must be interpreted in terms of three people, all men: Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan.

Pat Brown was Governor from 1959 through 1966. That was the time when California was at its peak — the Aqueduct and the freeways were being built, schools were being expanded and suburbs grew across the landscape to accommodate the Baby Boomers and their parents, and all that was possible because the industrial base was booming and most everybody had a good job at wages that were high for the time.

Brown was a Democrat. That’s hyper-important, because prior to his first election in 1958 Party identification hardly mattered in California. Not only did they have open primaries, the primaries were open at both ends — people could, and did, sign up for both the Democratic and the Republican primaries for the same office. Party organizations were therefore weak to nonexistent, and Party affiliation was regarded as alliance with national Parties rather than anything local. That scheme went out the window in favor of organization along Party lines the summer after Brown took office, and local Party mechanisms started coming together.

Brown was also the last, or nearly the last, of the important “favorite sons”. That system, now fallen into desuetude for many reasons, had a candidate run for President who had no chance on the national scene, but could win within his own State and therefore have much influence toward the final result in the Electoral College. The Party mechanisms built for Brown’s “favorite son” candidacies were of course in the Democratic Party, and Democrats swiftly built effective structures.

Republicans were ‘way behind start from the get-go. They did elect one of their own, Ronald Reagan, to the Governorship in 1966 (taking office in 1969). There were two problems. Reagan was never a really good organizer for Republicans because he’d come up through the Screen Actors’ Guild, and the SAG, despite constant conflict with the craft unions that organized the studios, considered itself part of Labor and therefore at least notionally Democratic. More subtly, that was the time when the side effects of California’s wealth base were becoming apparent. Smog came from both the industry that paid good wages and the cars the good wages bought, freeways had gotten big enough to impact the environment both visually and environmentally, water for the population was starting to be in short supply and needed grand engineering works, and the population had gotten large enough that people started running into each other’s elbows. The correctives for those problems had the inevitable effect of diverting money from workers’ pockets to the capital investments needed to finance solutions, and the solutions themselves cut into the liberties of the people. In this context, it matters not that the solutions were necessary — in the perceptions of the people, prosperity and freedom was an attribute of Democrats, and Republicans were associated with disagreeable restrictions and corrective measures that dipped into wallets.

Richard Nixon, who came on the scene more or less the same time Brown did, had national ambitions from the start, and although he was a better organizer than Reagan ever was, the organizations he built were focused on national politics rather than nitty-gritty local issues. So Democrats built their base all the way down to the precinct, city Government, and school board level, while Republicans contented themselves with a higher-level approach that required less manpower and time, and avoided the street-level perception that Democrat = expansion and wealth, Republican = restrictions and inflexibility.

Republicans had strongholds, like Orange County and a few other places, where they did build organizations from street level up, but those strongholds had to deal with the State as a whole, and since they were less numerous, Republicans had to engage in bargaining from positions of at best parity, more usually weakness, with the Democratic majority. It didn’t help that they didn’t get, or ask for, a lot of support from the national Party. Isolated by distance, desert, and a tall mountain range, Californians have always been saved from insularity only by immigration, and not only is politics mostly a matter for natives, immigrants had a strong tendency to be Democrats; and the California Republican Party had, at the beginning, a libertarian, laissez-faire ethic that contrasted with the cosmopolitan “Rockefeller wing” that dominated Republican politics until recently.

For half a century, then, California Republicans have been trading away bits of their ideals in compromises with the Democratic majority in order to simply survive, and building webs of influence within the Party that were strong enough to support individual bits as they came under attack. As that went on, a defensive, circle-the-wagons attitude took hold that was strong enough to merit the pop-psychology diagnosis of “paranoia”. It wasn’t enough. The Republican Party got pushed and pushed into tighter knots, ending as a few (metaphorical) armed and walled feudal estates in which outsiders — and outsiders’ attitudes — are regarded as attacks indistinguishable from those of Democrats, and whose main political activity is to siphon enough funds from the public teat to support their pretensions. Under intolerable pressure, they discarded anything resembling “principles” long ago, and survive on log-rolling, pork, and intimidation. A thin skim of Statewide organization remains, largely focused on the Governor, Senators, and Presidential and Vice-Presidential campaigns, but it is weak and largely controlled by the national Party apparatus, and neither offers nor expects help from the rump of the local Party. This is why Schwartzenegger is a weakling as Governor. His only support is the superficial, national-Party controlled apparatus; the local, State party regards him as an interloper and does not provide even the minimal assistance available from a minority Party.

It might be thought that California Republicans, having held out so long, deserve sympathy. Perhaps so, but sympathy rarely survives close association. Individually they are as cosmopolitan, well-educated, polite, and gregarious as anyone you might meet, but their underlying attitude is that of the closed-minded, close-mouthed isolated tribe that sees “stranger” and “enemy” as synonyms, and dealing with them invariably makes the back hairs stand on end.

This is what Mattie Fein is up against. Native or no, she isn’t one of them and can expect no help and considerable obstruction from the local, low-level Republican Party apparatus; if she won the office, it would disturb the delicate balance among local Party bosses, possibly weakening the web of influence that they regard as vital to their survival. Nor can she expect help from the superficial, national-Party-oriented apparatus that supports Carly Fiorina. To that group, Representatives are the business of the low-level Party they have little contact with and mostly despise, and don’t merit their attention, let alone their support.

Ms. Fein therefore has a really steep uphill battle. Given the national mood it is probably winnable, but not without an exhausting degree of retail politics. The California sun is glorious, the air temperatures tend to be comfortable, and the smog is mostly gone, but doorbell-ringing, buttonholing passersby, and visiting light-industry plants one at a time is a long, wearying, and disheartening process whatever the weather. She will wear out a lot of shoe soles trying, and may not have time to get it done.

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