The Republican parties of the Bay Area are dead. This sentiment is hardly Nietzschean or hyperbolic; the Democratic Party has truly culminated its monopolization of all echelons of government in San Francisco and its surrounding regions. While the East Bay clings onto vestigial Republican support in scattered precincts, any semblance of red in traditional areas of Republican strength has evaporated. It is fueled by the modern Republican Party’s lurch to the social right, hastened by the Democratic Party’s warm embrace of growing minority populations in the region, and accelerated by President Trump’s rapid alienation of white, college-educated suburbanites. The final nail in the GOP’s coffin manifested in 2018 when Bay Area Assemblywoman Catharine Baker, a socially liberal Republican who strayed from the party on most issues, was swept away regardless in the national “blue tsunami” that evidently metastasized on the state and local levels.
Though pundits aim the spotlight at Reagan’s Orange County, where all congressional Republicans, good and bad, died at the hands of liberal insurgents, the GOP nevertheless won 4 of the county’s 7 congressional districts in the 2018 gubernatorial race. The Republican Party has long bemoaned the political and demographic changes that transformed their stalwart “orange curtain” into a prime Democratic target. But their efforts in Orange County are merely patchwork to mask gaping scars that persist elsewhere – particularly in the Bay Area. Any Republican success on the statewide level, dating back as recently as 2006 with victories in the gubernatorial and several row office races, has rested upon a strong showing in the Bay Area counties.
Despite national backlash against the unpopular policies of President Bush, actor-turned-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger breezed to a comfortable 17-point reelection win in 2006. That included wide margins in Santa Clara (home to Silicon Valley) and Contra Costa counties, as well as a strong showing in the otherwise solidly-Democratic counties of San Mateo and Marin.
Schwarzenegger’s trouncing of his Democratic produced coattails for Republican Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner. Owing to the historical breadth of ticket-splitting in the Bay Area, Poizner lost the counties of the Bay Area by a mere 1.2%, emerging victorious in all but San Francisco and Alameda, which is anchored by deep-blue Oakland. Even as Democrats across the country turned out in droves to usurp the national GOP’s ruling mandate, the untapped potential of Bay Area Republicanism was unleashed to deliver electoral successes to Republican candidates.
San Francisco’s Republicans
The right’s performance in these races followed a string of successes in the region throughout the late twentieth century, exemplified by the old-guard socially moderate and fiscally conservative California GOP. The Bay Area’s pervasive entrepreneurial spirit and diligent work ethic had long given way to a substantial bench of Republican support.
The liberal bastion of San Francisco, renowned for its youth-driven counterculture, libertarian ideals, and leftist homogeneity, last saw a Republican mayor, George Christopher, leave office in 1964. A Greek immigrant, Christopher toed the ideological center throughout most of his mayoralty and predominantly focused on local issues.
Although he invited the national party to his city in 1956 to renominate President Dwight Eisenhower, Christopher was wary of the McCarthyite wing of the party. This was especially true when the House Un-American Activities Committee held hearings in San Francisco at the height of the Cold War. He encouraged gentrification of the city’s more impoverished areas and facilitated the relocation of the New York Giants baseball team to the city in 1958.
James Fang, the last San Francisco Republican
Distinct attention to local issues is what kept Republicans afloat in San Francisco until very recently. To date, the last Republican elected to any position in the city is James Fang. The son of a prominent family of Chinese immigrants, Fang served on the board of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system until 2014. Fang distinguished himself throughout his career as an advocate of labor interests. He even earned endorsements from the city’s most senior Democratic leaders (including Mayor Ed Lee, future California Governor Gavin Newsom, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi) in his reelection bids. Additionally, his district, was drawn to capture his strongest areas: the plurality-Asian Sunset District and the wealthy White areas in the West and North of the city. These groups continually deflected the city’s overwhelming liberal leanings and cemented wide margins for Fang.
But as hyperpartisanship gripped the country, Fang’s perceived invincibility began to fade. His 65% vote total 2002 was reduced to 59% in 2006 and 51% by 2010. While his strength among his Asian constituents remained mostly intact, decreased support among progressive Whites contributed to narrower margins. His luck fell through in 2014 when his opponent, a progressive and recent transplant to San Francisco, flipped his seat by nearly 10%, doing little more than labeling Fang a Republican. The city’s near-unanimous support for the Democratic Party proved too much to save the entrenched and well-respected leader.
Bar Oakland, San Francisco’s equally-liberal, athletically-competitive counterpart to the East, the rest of the Bay Area witnessed a more elaborate network of Republicanism for most of its modern history. A moderate Republican brand had developed throughout most of the region with business-oriented professionals. This counterbalanced the deep-blue coastal clusters of San Jose, Fremont, and Hayward, as well as the leftist college students at Stanford and Berkeley.
Support began to slip away when the GOP reoriented itself towards a more southern and Evangelical audience. However, the region’s opulence allowed it to flourish with like-minded individuals. Atherton and Hillsborough, characterized by their exorbitant wealth and large Asian populations, were regarded as the peninsula’s most unabashedly conservative communities. The likes of Nixon and Reagan handedly won these areas even as greater numbers of Hispanics and African-Americans flocked to the region for jobs and opportunity.
The Last Congressmen
Among the region’s most well-known Republicans was Stanford law professor-turned-Congressman Tom Campbell. Campbell was elected in 1988 to serve a seat that included much of the university and southern Santa Clara County. He beat out San Mateo County Supervisor and his eventual congressional successor, Anna Eshoo. His record during his tenure was generally viewed as moderate. He was in favor of increased environmental regulation and against excessive foreign interventionism. With Democrats at the helm of redistricting, however, he realized his congressional career would be short-lived, so he launched an unsuccessful bid for the Senate in 1992. Following redistricting, he was ushered back into Congress in 1994, where he served continuously until his run for the Senate in 2000.
The final Republican to represent the Bay Area in Congress was Richard Pombo. His congressional district, much like Catharine Baker’s assembly district, encompassed the traditional East Bay Republican strongholds of Danville, Dublin, and Pleasanton. It also stretched to catch the city of Morgan Hill and right-leaning San Joaquin County. Pombo made little effort to appear bipartisan and voted in near lock step with President George W. Bush. He supporting controversial measures as the PATRIOT Act and the Iraq War, both of which were used as fodder by his 2006 opponent, Jerry McNerny. He was defeated by nearly 7% in the midst of antagonistic national sentiment towards Republicans.
Pockets of Strength
Not all has been lost for the Grand Old Party in the San Francisco Bay Area in recent years. Mitt Romney performed respectably in some traditionally Republican areas of the Bay Area. The aforementioned towns of Atherton and Hillsborough both voted for Romney in 2012 following narrow Obama victories four years prior. The former lending Romney a 52-47% win, and the latter a victory of 53-45%.
These results represent a bygone era of Republican strength that has all but vaporized in the age of Trump. As suburban, college-educated communities delivered underwhelming margins to Trump, Clinton’s margins exploded in these highly-affluent areas around the Bay Area. Atherton’s five-point margin for Romney morphed into a 67-26% win for Hillary Clinton four years later. In similar fashion, Hillsborough swung 40 points to the left between the two elections.
2018 observed a stronger performance for Republicans in the gubernatorial race, but nowhere near traditional levels expected for an establishment candidate. Republican John Cox garnered 41% in each town as opposed to 59% for Lieutenant Governor and San Francisco native Gavin Newsom. Steve Poizner concurrently ran once again for the position of state Insurance Commissioner, this time with no party preference to sever himself from the GOP. But even he lost the Bay Area to a mainstream Democratic opponent.
Undoubtedly, Joe Biden will perform equally as well, if not better, in these areas. However, it is not entirely out of the question that during a Democratic administration, Republicans will be able to inch back to regain some support. Nevertheless, Democrats are ripe to gain more ground from the receding Bay Area GOP.
Republicans should not froth at the mouth at their prospects in the area, as efforts to reclaim strength elsewhere have proven futile and elusive. Extreme electoral misses this year, including the nomination of Ted Howze, known for insinuating hateful remarks towards Muslims, to the nearby 10th district, bode poorly upon the party’s chances at re-earning the trust of Bay Area moderates.
The floor of Republican support in the Bay Area is sinking to unearthly lows. The figures who for so long defined the Republican image in the region would be startled at how low it has sunk within the span of half a century. Despite some successes in the past few decades, the Republican Party seems to have given up all hope of reinvigorating their brand in the San Francisco Bay Area. This despite that fact that even though it has a deep-blue hue to an undiscerning eye, the area has historically lent itself to the Republican Party on the West Coast.