Beached party: Beach Cities Republican numbers tumble over Trump
What does the future hold for South Bay Republicans?
by Ryan McDonald
When newly elected Congressman Steve Kuykendall arrived in Washington, D.C. in January 1999, the Palos Verdes Republican made a point of visiting Tom DeLay as soon as possible. DeLay, a Republican from the Houston area then entering his eighth term in the House of Representatives, had served as the majority whip since 1995. In a legislature, the whip is responsible for ensuring that party members fall in line for upcoming votes. For those on the fence, DeLay would threaten to support primary challenges in an upcoming election, or to cripple a representative’s fundraising with unfavorable calls to influential donors. His reputation for intolerance of even occasional lapses earned him the nickname “The Hammer.”
Kuykendall had been the majority whip while representing the South Bay in the California State Assembly, after Republicans took control of that chamber following the 1994 elections. He wanted to reassure the Texan that he understood the importance of party discipline.
Then came the hard part, when he had to tell DeLay, “‘There are going to be times I’m not with the party.’”
Kuykendall represented California’s 36th Congressional District, which at the time contained much of the South Bay, along with portions of the city of Los Angeles. He had campaigned as a fiscal conservative, in favor of lowering taxes when possible and reining in spending. But he was not anti-abortion, supported some firearms restrictions, and backed legislation to protect the environment. These were positions he had run on, and they were what he thought serving the South Bay required.
Despite occasionally bucking the party, Kuykendall managed to avoid being nailed by The Hammer. (After two decades of dominant victories in his own Congressional campaigns, DeLay declined to run in 2006, retiring under a cloud of scandal; he was convicted of money laundering in 2011, but the charges were overturned on appeal.) Running for reelection in November 2000, Kuykendall was narrowly defeated by Jane Harman, a Democrat who had held the seat before him, and would go on to serve for another decade. He is the last Republican to represent the area in Congress.
There is a crucial difference, however, between Kuykendall’s loss and the defeats the GOP suffered in the recent election. In November 2000, Kuykendall carried almost every city in the South Bay; it was Harman’s margin in the Venice neighborhood of Los Angeles that put her back in the Capitol. In November 2020, Republicans were trounced throughout the region in races for Congress, state assembly and the presidency.
For purposes of this story, Easy Reader defined the “South Bay” as including El Segundo plus most of the cities in the 66th State Assembly District: Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, Redondo Beach, Torrance, Lomita, Palos Verdes Estates, Rolling Hills, Rolling Hills Estates, and Rancho Palos Verdes. Analyzing 20 years of statements of votes-cast-by-community from the Los Angeles County Registrar and registration-by-political-subdivision reports from the California Secretary of State’s Office reveals a Republican Party with a considerably weakened hold on the region.
The obvious explanation for the change — the inescapable, omnipresent, unavoidable explanation — is President Donald J. Trump.
“It wasn’t that I disliked all of his policies. Some of them I disliked, but a lot of them were okay — I mean, my bank account got a lot bigger because of them,” Kuykendall, who earlier this year became one of many prominent Republicans to endorse Democrat Joe Biden, said with a chuckle. Then his voice turned grave. The day before Kuykendall and I spoke, Trump had speculated in an interview on Fox News that the Department of Justice and the FBI may have tampered with the recent election.
“But what really disturbed me was his personal behavior, and the manner in which he talked about how government functions, like faked elections, rigged elections. And I found myself far more concerned for another four years of that and the implications that could have for our form of government than I was over whether or not I agreed with the economic policies of Joe Biden versus Donald Trump, or immigration policies, or whatever. And so my choice was not a policy choice. It was a character choice, it was a choice based on the human being that had had that job, and that to me, he had proven he was unfit to hold.”
Trump cannot explain everything. In some ways, the region and the party were moving away from one another before the escalator descent that kicked off Trump’s 2016 campaign. But his wake has upset local races throughout the country.
As the 2018 Republican candidate for the 66th State Assembly District, former Torrance Mayor Frank Scotto said it felt like every piece of opposition advertising he saw attempted to link him to Trump. Mere mention of Trump’s name, he said, “brings a whole different connotation” that distorts how the region’s residents feel about underlying issues.
“You can be a moderate Democrat and have the ideals that they have, but you still can be a conservative when it comes to financial situations, or a lot of other things,” he said.
One need only look farther down the recent ballot to see that the margins Democrats have assembled in the South Bay do not mean that it has become a San Francisco of the south. Every city in the region voted against Proposition 25, an initiative that would have eliminated cash bail in California. (Prop. 25 failed, but George Gascon, who emerged victorious in the race for District Attorney despite losing every city in the South Bay, announced on his first day in office that he would eliminate it for Los Angeles County.) Every city in the South Bay also rejected Proposition 15, which would have removed tax assessment limits on commercial property, and Proposition 16, which would have allowed state government bodies and colleges to consider an applicant’s race as one factor in hiring and admissions, and Proposition 21, which would have allowed cities to expand rent control. They also all supported Proposition 22, which allowed ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft to avoid treating their drivers as employees.
These results suggest a voter who comfortably distinguishes between change from the market and change from the state, one protective of individual rights but skeptical of social reform, and one confident (or fortunate) enough not to need much help — what might be called a conservative.
“It’s what responsible people understand by politics,” the bourgeois merchant Lisa says to her radical brother-in-law Florent in Émile Zola’s “The Belly of Paris.” “I’m grateful to the Government when business is doing well, when I can eat my meals in peace, when I can sleep without being woken up by gunfire.” But what if that’s no longer what it means to be a Republican?
As recently as February 2007, Republicans enjoyed a registration advantage in every city in the South Bay. As of October of this year, that is true only in Palos Verdes Estates, Rolling Hills, and Rolling Hills Estates. The margins there, once commanding, have thinned.
Janice Webb, chair of the Republican Central Committee for the 66th Assembly District, attributed the declines in registration to “a number of things,” first among them an intolerance of Republican political views throughout California.
“I think people, because of the way the political climate has evolved over time — there’s no longer civil political discourse, if you disagree with the ruling party you end up being canceled, blackballed — you have a lot of Republicans who simply change their registration to ‘No Party Preference [NPP],’ so as to protect themselves and their families and livelihoods. And I totally get that,” Webb said.
Cities across California have seen increases in NPP registration over the last two decades, but in the South Bay, they are not large enough to account for Republican declines. Simultaneous gains among Democrats suggest some residents are moving across the aisle.
Consider Hermosa Beach. In October 2000, Republicans held a registration edge over Democrats of 41.2 percent to 34.4 percent, while 18.9 percent of the city’s voters chose NPP. By October of this year, Republicans had fallen to 23.9 percent of voters, while Democrats had surged to 42.7 percent, and NPP had climbed to 27.4 percent. Other cities throughout the South Bay have repeated the same pattern, in which Republican losses are roughly equal to the sum of the percentage increases among Democrats and NPP voters.
When she first got involved in the battle over oil drilling in Hermosa Beach in 2012, Stacey Armato was a registered Republican, and had been all her life.
“At that point, I hadn’t thoughtfully dissected why I was a registered Republican. It was more that my parents were small business owners, and they were registered Republicans. My husband is the same story: small business owner parents, registered Republicans. There was just never a thought about it,” Armato said.
Armato, who is now a city councilmember in Hermosa, said that during the oil campaign she began to recognize her priorities on environmental issues were out of step with those of Republicans. But she didn’t plan on changing her registration. “I didn’t think it defined me, I didn’t think it defined other people,” she said.
Eventually it became impossible for her to reconcile her values with those of the national party. Her son Massimo was born with cystic fibrosis and required multiple invasive surgeries before he was a year old. The 2010 Affordable Care Act, which for the first time guaranteed coverage for those with preexisting conditions, had been a lifesaver, and Republican attempts to repeal it in 2017 left her dumbfounded. She switched her registration to Democrat.
“I quietly changed it. I didn’t think I needed to make a big deal of it, but I did, and my husband changed his. There are multiple layers to it, each significant in its own way, and I stand by it,” she said.
Trump’s rise in particular coincides with an acceleration in the trend of registration shifting away from Republicans and toward Democrats. In Manhattan Beach, for example, the Republican registration edge diminished in fits and starts after 2000, but the GOP maintained an advantage of at least several hundred votes until May 2016 — around the time it became clear that Trump would be the party’s Presidential nominee — when Democrats pulled ahead by 16 voters. In October of that year, not long after the release of a recording capturing Trump’s graphic comments from a 2005 “Access Hollywood” interview, the lead grew to about 450. By the eve of the 2018 midterm elections, it had more than doubled, to over 1,100 voters. And in the most recently available figures, from October of this year, the Democratic registration advantage had grown to more than 3,000. Democrats gained more than twice as many voters in Manhattan over the last four years as they did in the previous 16. The growth in NPP registration between 2016 and 2020, meanwhile, was roughly one-fourth of what it was between 2012 and 2016.
Webb and others suggested that Democrats have benefitted from a pressure campaign to make GOP registration socially unacceptable. Edwin Duterte, an El Segundo resident and a vice president of the California Republican Assembly, claimed he had lost out on a job at a private school when the administration found out he was a Republican. (Of the more than three dozen Republicans from whom I requested an interview for this story, some did decline to speak on the record because of the political climate, though this sentiment was equally prevalent among those who were inclined to criticize the party but feared trollish reprisal from the online right.) Blaming the losses on public shaming of Republicans, however, cannot account for how residents behave in the privacy of the voting booth, or, as was often the case in the recent election, at their kitchen table.
The electoral trend toward Democrats has been especially stark on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, revealing that, even in places where Republicans still cling to a registration advantage, voters are rejecting the party’s candidates. In 2012, for example, every city on the Peninsula delivered huge margins for Republicans in the races for President, the 33rd Congressional District, and the 66th State Assembly District. In 2020, Palos Verdes Estates, Rancho Palos Verdes, and Rolling Hills Estates joined the rest of the South Bay in favoring Democrats in each of those races. Only Rolling Hills, by far the smallest city in the region, remains a reliable source of Republican support.
Jerry Marcil is a Palos Verdes Estates resident and the chairman of New Majority, a California-based political action committee whose website describes it as being devoted to fiscal responsibility and “an inclusive mainstream approach towards politics.” In the recent election, the group focused on defeating propositions 15 and 21.
“The group is a bunch of moderate Republicans. I’d say we’re pretty liberal when it comes to social issues,” Marcil said, noting that they deliberately avoided issues like abortion.
Marcil, who has worked as a developer and owns apartment buildings, grew up in Torrance and was a Democrat when he was younger, but became a Republican as he got more involved in business. Over the years he’s become a prolific backer of Republican causes and candidates, including Trump, but he acknowledged that the president had likely turned some of his neighbors away from the party.
“I mean, I had to vote for him because of his policies. But dang, he’s toxic,” Marcil said.
Asked to classify the South Bay political animal, Hermosa resident George Schmeltzer reached back to the election of November 1972, when President Richard Nixon was running for reelection. Also on the ballot was Proposition 19, a before-its-time effort to decriminalize marijuana in the state.
“The interesting thing was that they both won in Hermosa Beach,” Schmeltzer said.
For Schmeltzer, a former Hermosa City Council member, the 1972 race embodied the tough-to-pin-down character of the region: a place where anti-war activism and beachside bohemia shared sand with suburban striving and a buttoned-up aerospace workforce. The two rubbed together and eventually rubbed off on one another to create a region that was solidly purple.
Schmeltzer worked on Democratic Congressional campaigns, and went door-to-door in the area to campaign against Proposition 13, the 1978 initiative that locked in low property tax rates and is sometimes blamed for constraining the finances of local governments in California. He recalled finding voters who were largely non-ideological, and motivated instead by a desire for “good government.”
“I went around talking and debating. And at the time, it wasn’t hard right or hard left. It was people looking for a solution,” Schmeltzer recalled.
If there was an elected official who embodied this mindset, it was Bob Beverly, a former Manhattan Beach City Councilmember who represented the region in the state legislature for nearly three decades before retiring in 1996. Beverly, a lifelong Republican who died in 2009, spent his career focused on issues like consumer protection, and prided himself on even-keeled professionalism.
“He could be maddeningly moderate at times,” said his son, Bill Beverly, a Manhattan Beach resident, former president of the El Camino College Board of Trustees, and a past Republican candidate for Congress in the area. “I used to get frustrated trying to get him to take a side on something, and he’d always be pointing out strengths and weaknesses of arguments instead of jumping to one side or the other, and waving the flag. He would study, and he would listen.”
Beverly developed a reputation as a Republican who understood the importance of maintaining good relationships with Democrats.
“They would argue and fight and arm wrestle and negotiate and compromise, and then they’d meet at Frank Fat’s afterward and all have a drink together,” Bill Beverly said, referring to the legendary Sacramento restaurant favored by lawmakers and lobbyists.
By the time the 1998 election rolled around, a Washington Post report on key congressional races described L.A. County’s “beach” district as competitive. “Democrats were struggling to maintain their hold on the district that has split voter registration. But Kuykendall, a state assemblyman who is a pro-choice moderate, seemed to connect with the voters’ preference for social moderates who are fiscal conservatives.”
In the ensuing years, voters in the region flipped between favoring Democrats and Republicans, sometimes in the same election. In the 2000 congressional race, El Segundo favored the Republican Kuykendall, and also the Democrat George Nakano in the contest for the 53rd State Assembly District, which at the time contained much of the South Bay; it also chose George W. Bush for President over Al Gore, but Democrat Diane Feinstein for Senator over the Republican Tom Campbell.
Jane Diehl, a life-long Republican, has been a Redondo Beach resident for more than 40 years. She recently won reelection to the board of the Beach Cities Health District, and before that spent 10 years on the Board of Education for the Redondo Beach Unified School District. She recalled her first school board campaign, in 2003, when she got “walking papers” showing her how the members of different houses in the city’s precincts were registered.
“You would see who was a Republican and who was a Democrat. And I would say, Oh my God, look at all of these mixed marriages!” Diehl recalled.
Republicans tended to do especially well in midterm elections, when turnout was lower. (Midterm turnout across the South Bay has since soared. For the November 2002 midterm elections, about 40 percent of the region’s registered voters cast a ballot; in the November 2018 election, about 80 percent did.) In governor’s races, every city in the region gave a majority to Republican Bill Simon over Democrat Gray Davis in 2002, and to Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger over Democrat Phil Angelides in 2006.
It was around this time that Manhattan Beach resident Bill Bloomfield, recently retired, decided he wanted to get involved in politics. A friend put him in touch with someone on the presidential campaign of Republican John McCain. McCain’s campaign was struggling financially and nearly imploded before he shook up his staff. Bloomfield, with no experience in politics, was brought on to be the campaign’s national director of volunteers. McCain turned a corner and captured the nomination, later naming Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his Vice Presidential nominee.
“I remember when I was sitting at the convention in 2008. I was a representative for McCain from California, and people started shouting, ‘Drill, baby, drill!’” a pro-oil slogan that Palin would later popularize, Bloomfield recalled. “I turned to the person next to me and I said, ‘When did the Republican Party decide they have to dumb everything down?’”
After McCain’s loss to Barack Obama, Bloomfield went to work on the California gubernatorial campaign of Steve Poizner, who was then serving as the state’s insurance commissioner and seeking the Republican nomination against eBay founder Meg Whitman. In public statements and debate performances, Poizner attempted to outflank Whitman by running to the right of her on immigration. He called for “turning off the magnets” by ending “all taxpayer-funded benefits for people who are here illegally,” a stance which, if extended to primary education, would be unconstitutional. Bloomfield was furious.
“I told them, ‘You’re going to ruin the Republican Party. Even if Steve is the nominee, you’re going to ruin any chance of winning. And more importantly, I’m personally offended: two of my grandchildren are Mexican-American,’” Bloomfield recalled.
Bloomfield left the campaign. Poizner would be defeated in the Republican primary by Whitman, who in the 2010 general election would win most of the cities of the South Bay but lose statewide to Democrat Jerry Brown. (In 2018, during an unsuccessful run for a second stint at insurance commissioner, Poizner apologized for his earlier statements on immigration.) And Bloomfield switched his registration from Republican to No Party Preference.
Around this time, California voters passed a series of initiatives that altered the state’s elections. Proposition 14 did away with partisan primaries and created a system where all voters, regardless of registration, could vote for any candidate, except in presidential races, with the “top two” advancing to the general election. Under propositions 11 and 20, redistricting for state and federal offices legislative offices was to be handled by a Citizens Redistricting Commission, unlike many other states where the power belongs to elected officials.
After the reapportionment process that followed the 2010 census, Bloomfield looked at a map of the newly created 33rd Congressional District, which includes the South Bay and portions of West Los Angeles — the two areas where Bloomfield had spent his entire life. He sought the seat in 2012 and made it to the general election despite not being affiliated with a party. That November, he squared off against Democrat Henry Waxman, a party titan who spent 40 years in Congress. Thanks to the top two primary system, he and Waxman were alone on the ballot, offering something of an experiment for how the South Bay would react if given the choice between a liberal democrat and an unaffiliated local. Bloomfield won every city in the region, most by significant margins, but lost to Waxman by about eight percent districtwide. In 2018 Bloomfield changed his registration again, to Democrat, citing disgust with Trump.
Changes to the state’s voting structure also drew in another candidate from Manhattan Beach, David Hadley. Part of the redistricting commission’s mandate is to maintain the “geographic integrity” of a “community of interest,” rather than creating districts shaped like a horseshoe or a kite on a string to protect incumbents, as is commonly done by both Democrats and Republicans throughout the country. The newly formed 66th Assembly District reunited the Beach Cities and the Palos Verdes Peninsula, which had been split between what were then the state’s 53rd and 54th assembly districts. Hadley, who had recently become chair of the Republican central committee for the region, saw an opportunity. He watched the committee seek a candidate for the assembly seat, and spent about eight months trying to find one himself.
“I completely struck out recruiting candidates, which was quite a surprise to me. The South Bay has about 100 elected officials, if you add up city councils and mayors and school boards and water districts, and at the time, half of them or slightly more than half of them were Republicans,” Hadley said. “At the time, I didn’t think it would be an overwhelming challenge to find a candidate we could help support. But we didn’t. When my last good fish wriggled off the hook and said he wasn’t going to run, my wife and I talked about it, and we said, ‘Well, I’ll go for it.’”
Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi had beaten Republican Craig Huey by less than 10 percent in 2012. In 2014, Hadley unseated Muratsuchi by just over half a percent.
“I think my election to the Assembly in 2014 is a pretty good data point that, politically, the South Bay wasn’t a lot different, that not a lot had changed from the late ‘90s to 2014. The state as a whole had changed pretty dramatically, but the South Bay had not changed that much,” he said.
Four months before he faced voters in the November 2016 election, Hadley publicly declared that he found neither Trump nor Hillary Clinton fit for office. He nonetheless believes that being of the same party as Trump helped sink his chances. Muratsuchi won by a margin slightly smaller than his 2012 victory.
Hadley said that low name recognition made state legislative races the most “nakedly partisan” item on the ballot.
“I, of course, have an interest in saying how important, how beloved, how widely known state legislators are. I can assure you, having been one, that’s not the case. Of all the races, of all the partisan races, state legislators are probably the one where the ‘D’ or the ‘R’ after your name,” makes the biggest difference, he said.
In 2016, voters in Manhattan Beach, Palos Verdes Estates, Rolling Hills Estates and Rancho Palos Verdes all voted for Hillary Clinton over Trump while also supporting Hadley. The margins, however, were smaller than they were in 2014, and places that went against him in 2014 tilted even further toward Muratsuchi. Redondo Beach, for example, gave Muratsuchi a margin of just over 1,000 votes in 2014; in 2016, he won there by more than 4,200. In 2018, when Scotto ran for the seat, Manhattan and Rancho Palos Verdes switched to Muratsuchi, and Republican margins in Palos Verdes Estates and Rolling Hills Estates inched closer.
In 2016, Hadley’s ability to win even in places that rejected Trump suggested that a Republican moderate could still have a viable path to victory. It’s unclear, however, whether the last four years have so soured South Bay voters on the Republican brand that a GOP win in the 66th is currently impossible.
Asked how he thought his father would do if he were to run for the state legislature in today’s political climate, Bill Beverly pondered. Politics had changed, but the region was not so different, he reasoned. He answered with a slightly different question in the same spirit.
“Could a moderate person win in this district? Well a moderate person has been winning, whether it’s Hadley or Muratsuchi. I don’t think either one of those people is a real extremist,” Beverly said.
For most of life, Steve Wotjak was uninterested in politics. A Torrance resident, Wotjak in 2007 retired as a special agent with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the predecessor of the federal agency that today is known as Citizenship and Immigration Services. He had always cared about “truth, justice and the American way,” he said, but did not immerse himself in the details of campaigns.
Then came Trump.
“He started talking about putting America first, trying to end the endless wars, make factories and companies come back here to the U.S. rather than foreign countries, and beef up the military. That was what I was interested in,” Wotjak said.
Eventually, he heard about Beach Cities Republicans, one of several Republican clubs in the South Bay, and decided he wanted to get involved. Today, Wotjak is the group’s president.
Another politician whom Wotjak admires is fellow Torrance resident Arthur Schaper, who was the Republican nominee for the 66th State Assembly District in the recent election. Schaper lost to Muratsuchi, 36.8 percent to 63.2 percent, a margin 5.4 larger than Scotto suffered in the same race in 2018. (Amid the high turnout of 2020, Schaper received about 13,000 more total votes than Scotto.) But as Schaper eagerly points out, he did so with a fraction of the resources.
“I spent $4,500. That’s it. Frank Scotto and his campaign spent $1,500,000,” Schaper said.
Scotto also received endorsements, including that of the Republican Party of Los Angeles County, that Schaper did not. Schaper said he was being punished for uncovering corruption in the party. Webb said that the county party’s endorsement process requires the local central committee to refer a candidate for consideration, and that Schaper did not apply for a referral by the deadline.
In 2017, when Schaper was the president of the Beach Cities Republicans, the county party’s Executive Committee pulled the club’s charter. In a statement issued at the time, the county party cited a failure to comply with by-laws, and said that “BCR Leadership and Mr. Schaper have demonstrated a pattern of behavior that can no longer be tolerated.” The county party’s press office did not respond to an interview request for this story.
Schaper draws different lessons than many South Bay Republicans about the party’s recent struggles. For Schaper, disentangling from Trump is a blunder, and the charged nature of certain social issues is not a reason to avoid them but a call to full-throated urgency, and a justification for abandoning politics as usual.
“We’re not in Reagan’s day anymore. We’ve got serious, contentious issues that have to be dealt with. When Reagan and Carter were running, they were discussing inflation, they were discussing the hostage crisis, they were discussing stagflation, very narrow economic issues. They weren’t debating baby killing, or whether a baby should live or die, they weren’t debating infanticide as abortion, they weren’t debating the meaning of marriage,” Schaper said.
One of the targets of Schaper’s confrontational approach is WestCal Academy, a Torrance-based nonprofit that pairs students in colleges and vocational schools with mentors to help them find jobs. Some of the students WestCal serves are undocumented, or are beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, said John Paul Tabakian, the program’s president. Schaper has arrived at WestCal events in what Tabakian described as an effort to harass and intimidate students. A video of one of these incidents, from 2018, is posted to Schaper’s YouTube account, titled “Takedown! Trump Supporters Slam West Csl [sic] Academy Poverty Pimps.”
Tabakian, a Torrance resident and a political science instructor with the Los Angeles Community College District, was once active in the Beach Cities Republicans. He met Schaper through the group, and they were friendly at first. As Schaper rose from prolific blogger to club president, Tabakian became concerned about Schaper’s style and tactics. In March 2016 he walked away from the Beach Cities Republicans during a meeting, when Schaper cut off another speaker who was complaining that Schaper’s use of anti-gay slurs and position on undocumented immigrants were compromising the party’s attempts to attract younger voters.
“This is your leader!” an exasperated Tabakian says in a video of the meeting, pleading with other members to reject Schaper. “You want to deport my students!” he shouts at Schaper as he exits. Once he leaves, the remaining members applaud.
Tabakian, who changed his registration to Democrat not long after Trump’s inauguration, views Schaper as a force the GOP nurtured but can no longer control. Republicans, he said, even those who find Schaper unhinged, are not taking an assertive stand against him because they are “unwilling to upset the quote-unquote base.”
“What they have to do to move forward is they have to have the balls to condemn bullshit. Period. Because people like me, I’m not going to vote for a Republican. And I still consider myself a conservative,” Tabakian said.
Hadley described Schaper as “a joke, and in my opinion an embarrassment, and not good for the party.” (Tabakian said Hadley should have spoken out earlier, during his 2016 campaign when Schaper was supporting him.) Other Republicans, however, declined to criticize Schaper publicly, or denied that he represented a problem.
“I think Arthur Schaper has a lot to offer us. I wish that he would be more willing to work together, rather than being too far to the right. As I’m trying to tell you, both ways the pendulum swings aren’t good,” Scotto said.
But for Schaper’s supporters, refusal to accommodate is the essence of his appeal. Early on in his involvement in Beach Cities Republicans, Wotjak said that someone from outside the group — he does not recall who — told him and other members to be wary of Schaper. “‘Oh, this Art guy, we don’t want him in any kind of office, he’s going to make us look bad,’” Wotjak remembers being told. But when he actually met Schaper and heard him speak, he thought just the opposite.
“He’s the kind of person we need,” Wotjak said of Schaper. “Someone who can go to these groups that claim to be Republicans, he goes right in their face, and says ‘Hey, you said this, and you’re not doing this, what kind of people are you?’ The guy is great, I love the guy. If more people in office were like him, we’d get things done. He’s not concerned about, ‘Well, if I say these things, this guy is going to think badly about me.’ No, if he sees something wrong, he just goes after it and tells you right in your face.”
Elaina Plott, formerly of the conservative magazine National Review and now a reporter at The New York Times, wrote last month that the biggest change of the Trump era may be a “premium on combativeness, on ‘fighting back’ above all else.” Describing forthcoming survey research from Marc Hetherington, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Plott wrote that, “Those who agree that only fighters are successful in life, or that the best strategy is to play hardball, even if it means being unfair, tend to prefer Donald Trump, while those who agree with statements like, ‘Cooperation is the key to success’ tend to prefer Mitt Romney.”
In the South Bay there are many Republicans who defend Trump’s policies but lament his boorish personality. This if-only-he-wouldn’t-Tweet-so-much pearl clutching ignores the possibility that, for a swath of Republican voters too large to dismiss, the Tweets are the point.
John Cruikshank, a Republican and a member of the Rancho Palos Verdes City Council, believes there are two kinds of Republicans.
“There’s the ‘litmus-test’ Republicans, where you have to be all the things: You have to be pro-life, you have to pass all the different tests, otherwise you’re a complete RINO,” he said, using the popular acronym for “Republican in Name Only.” “And then there’s others that are more moderate. I put myself in that camp. Nobody’s one thing or another. We’re all different. To throw out someone who agrees with you 90 percent of the time because the 10 percent is not something that you would agree with, I think that’s crazy. You’ve got to try to find common ground,” he said.
Cruikshank is a South Bay Republican success story, one of five area candidates whom the local party endorsed this year, four of whom won. (All of them were seeking seats in local government, where no “R” or “D” appears next to names on the ballot.) He joined the council in 2017, and said his closest friend on that body is Eric Alegria, a Democrat who currently holds the city’s rotating mayoralty. In their spare time they often talk about their disappointments with their respective parties.
The owner of a small engineering firm, Cruikshank grew up in El Segundo and lived in several cities in the South Bay before settling in Rancho Palos Verdes. His parents were Republicans growing up, and he gravitated to the party’s ideas of individual accountability and small government. Cruikshank voted for Trump in the last election, saying that as a business owner he appreciates many of the things the president has done. He acknowledged that he did not like everything about Trump, but said attributing every problem to him obscured more deep-seated issues.
“Trump is … he is who is, but we’ve kind of allowed him to exist. He’s a by-product of us. And when I say us, I mean everyone. He wouldn’t have gotten elected had we not been the way we were four years ago. I don’t blame him for who we are. We have to blame ourselves,” he said. “And it’s very easy to be partisan. It’s way easier to be partisan than ever before, and I don’t just blame him, I blame social media, I blame us isolating ourselves and not getting to know our neighbors, and not getting to understand what’s going on. Really, that’s a disservice to all of us.”
The notion that less partisanship is the cure for Republican’s woes is far from universal. Speaking to a room full of people at the California Republican Convention in 2019, Craig Huey, Muratsuchi’s Republican opponent in the 2012 race, said, “It doesn’t matter if you have a better candidate. It doesn’t matter if you have more money. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a better tagline. It doesn’t matter if you’re right or wrong. It’s he who mobilizes and gets people to the polls who’s the winner. Does that make sense? It doesn’t matter if it’s right or wrong, it’s he who gets the person to the polls who wins.”
Before running for state assembly, Huey, an El Segundo native, ran for Congress in a 2011 special election called when Harman left to take a job as director of a think tank. Though he was defeated by Janice Hahn, the race exposed him to the way Organizing for America, the pioneering Obama campaign apparatus, was using data to transform political campaigns.
Huey, the owner of an advertising agency, believes Democrats are winning in the South Bay and the rest of California because the GOP is still marketing itself as it did 20 years ago. Like Schaper, he feels that distancing from Trump or attempting to run social moderates is a poor strategy. Instead he argues for using data and “microtargeting” to attract voters in ways that may shake up prevailing conceptions of the party.
“The image of the Republican Party is still an old-fashioned image, that it is the party of the rich and big business, which is just the opposite of the reality today,” Huey said in an interview.
While 2020 represented a continued decline for Republicans in much of the South Bay, the party improved in cities where they traditionally endure lopsided losses. In Gardena, Hawthorne and Lawndale, Trump gained at least 6 percent on his 2016 vote share. Rep. Maxine Waters, a Democrat who represents the 43rd Congressional District, saw her 2016 margin decline by at least five percent in each of those cities. In Huey’s vision, the growth area for the GOP is among groups like Latino evangelicals, 80 to 90 percent of whom, he estimates, will vote Republican.
The Beach Cities and the Palos Verdes Peninsula, already stocked with the rich and the credentialed at the dawn of the millennium, have since become astronomically wealthy and cosmopolitan as, nationally, such areas are drifting away from the GOP. According to a Wall Street Journal analysis of data from the American Community Survey, in 1984 Ronald Reagan carried 93 of the 100 counties with the highest median income, and 80 of the 100 counties with the highest share of college graduates. In 2020, Trump carried only 43 of the wealthiest counties, and just 16 of the most educated. Whether this pattern will endure after Trump leaves office is unclear, but history suggests little reason to expect that political parties are firmly attached to ideology.
“I remember being much amused at seeing two partially intoxicated men engaged in a fight with their great-coats on, which fight, after a long and rather harmless contest, ended in each having fought himself out of his own coat and into that of the other. If the two leading parties of this day are really identical with the two in the days of Jefferson and Adams, they have performed the same feat as the two drunken men,” the Republican Abraham Lincoln told an audience shortly before the election of 1860.
Lincoln’s homespun eloquence is quoted in the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger’s 1949 essay “The Tides of National Politics.” Schlesinger argued that, rather than tracing some steady arc of development, the nation’s political mood shifted from liberal to conservative in predictable cycles. Parties trade issues and ideas in a vain attempt to keep up.
“A party in one climate of opinion may move to the right and in another shift to the left, yet proclaim to a forgetful electorate that it is still the same residuary of immortal truth,” Schlesinger wrote.
Schlesinger felt the ever-shifting tide of electoral sentiment was a check against coups, because neither side would have to wait very long before it was back in charge. This theory, he acknowledged, assumed elections were free and fair, that they accurately reflected how people felt about issues. He wrote at a time when the United States was confronting totalitarian dictatorships abroad, but when the idea of a sitting president contesting the legitimacy of an election at home would have seemed absurd.
“Since each sect is assured of an eventual lease of power, its adherents when out of office need not yield to despair or resort to revolutionary violence,” he wrote. “They need only to talk and work and wait, knowing full well that ere long their own turn will come.”