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Some NorCal Republicans Say Local Focus, Not National Politics, Will Help Them Win in 2020

Republican Megan Dahle is running for re-election to the seat representing California State Assembly District 1.
Republican Megan Dahle is running for re-election to the seat representing California State Assembly District 1.

Republican Party maintains a strong base in Northern and Eastern parts of California, where the president won a majority of votes in 2016. More voters are registered Republican than Democrat in many of these districts.

At just 35 years old, Kevin Kiley is one of the freshest faces of California’s Republican party.

The Rocklin-based, Yale-educated attorney represents the 6th District in the State Assembly, covering the Sacramento suburb of Roseville and the Sierra foothills — his childhood stomping grounds.

He’s passionate about charter schools. He wants to fix homelessness. And, in a platform that sets him apart from his fellow conservatives, he sees income inequality as one of California’s most pressing problems.

Even though he’s one of California’s youngest lawmakers, he’s not short on ambition.

“I'm trying to provide leadership for our party here in California, which will look different than leadership in Washington,” Kiley said.

“I try to stay in my lane and focus on state issues,” Kiley said.

Kiley’s not the only California Republican whose approach to conservatism differs from the rhetoric of the national party under President Trump. He and other state GOP candidates say they want to focus on what matters most to rural northern Californians, such as the cost of living, access to education, and easing regulations for small businesses.

Although Kiley is subtle about parsing the national party from his own politics, Mike Madrid has no problem saying California Republicans need to create an identity separate from the national GOP. He co-founded the Lincoln Project last year — a coalition of conservatives working to unseat President Trump. The coalition has launched attack ads against the president as well as stalwarts of the Republican Party like Dan Sullivan and Lindsey Graham.

“The Republican Party, it's been a long time since it was an actual viable party in California,” Madrid said. “By and large, it's been on a decline for 25, 30 years.”

Madrid says the GOP in California hasn’t evolved enough to embrace the growing ethnic diversity in the state, particularly at the congressional level. He points to the seven congressional seats that flipped blue in the 2018 midterm elections, what he says is part of a longtime trend of Republicans losing their hold in California politics.

But the Republican Party maintains a strong base in Northern and Eastern parts of California, where the president won a majority of votes in 2016. More voters are registered Republican than Democrat in many of these districts. The population is overwhelmingly white, with lower levels of education and lower household incomes on average, Madrid says.

“These districts look a lot more like West Virginia, or rural Alabama than they do what we stereotypically believe as California,” he said. “The demographic cohort is essentially the same. And wherever that demographic exists in America, it's usually a red state.”

Republican State Assemblywoman Megan Dahle says the party’s fidelity to its traditional values, and that voter base, are its strength. She represents Assembly District 1, a district that extends from the Oregon border down to Lake Tahoe. This is her second bid for the seat, and would be her first full term. Dahle won the district in a 2019 special election after her husband Brian Dahle, who previously held the seat, was elected to the State Senate.

Dahle touts the need for better forest management, improving internet access, and reducing regulations for small businesses — issues that have come to the fore during the pandemic and recent wildfires.

“The urgency is just amplified,” Dahle said. “We need broadband, but now we really need it. We can’t wait another 10 years. We can't wait to study forest management, we need boots on the ground.”

Dahle thinks that recent events like wildfires, the pandemic, and widespread protests could deepen and broaden support for Republicans this election. Many of her constituents are critical of how California has managed the COVID pandemic, which has led some to pay more attention to regional politics. Dahle would like to see the Republican Party absorb new voters who may be frustrated by the high cost of living and lack of action on issues like broadband and forest management. She says she has an approach and mindset that differs from the political norm in Sacramento, which makes it difficult to work across the aisle as a Republican.

“It’s unfortunate because the national level is what it is,” she said. “It's so polarizing.”

Dahle says if she’s re-elected, she’ll try to keep the focus local and try not to let the national GOP narrative dominate. Still, she isn’t quiet about the values she holds. Dahle is pro-life, supports stricter immigration policies, and has been endorsed by several county sheriffs.

If re-elected, Kevin Kiley says he wants to build a center-right agenda for the California GOP, based on education and making California more affordable.

“I think that there's a center-right coalition in California, that is latent, that is just waiting to be brought together by the right vision for the state,” Kiley said.

Building that kind of coalition is part of his project to change the culture of the state legislature in California. He wants to see more vigorous debate among legislators focused on issues instead of party identity and ideology.

“Our legislative process doesn't have the sort of debate and discussion and public participation and weighing of the merits of an issue that you ought to have in a well functioning democratic society,” Kiley said.

Right now, Kiley says special interests hold way too much sway in Sacramento and prevent that kind of conversation about issues. Legislation, in his view, too often reflects the agendas of lobbyists, not the people of California or their representatives. And he worries that drowns out the voices of more rural and conservative communities like the ones he represents in particular.

“When you have more and more power that's taken away from our local communities and is concentrated at the Capitol, that results in policies that don't reflect the values of our communities,” Kiley said.

Kiley and Dahle are two of just 17 Republican members of the 80-member State Assembly. They have the unique challenge of championing a conservative agenda in a majority blue legislature, during a time of intense national polarization.

If re-elected, they’ll have to work within a Democratic supermajority in the state legislature without compromising their core values. That’s a balancing act familiar to many other California Republicans.