12 min read

Caucus politics and the dilemma of Assembly Republicans

Political lessons from a 2017 attempt to lead a party where it didn't want to go.
Caucus politics and the dilemma of Assembly Republicans

Back in 2017, Republicans in the California State Assembly were staring at a big, long-term problem: the state party was losing registered voters, losing votes, losing seats, and losing relevance. With an unpopular Donald Trump in the White House, it was likely these trends would continue.

With that context, it's understandable that the Republican leadership in the Assembly felt a need to take bold action in order to prevent the party from falling even further among voters.

Chad Mayes, the Republican leader at the time, along with a handful of his colleagues, detected an opportunity. The state's landmark climate change policy was set to sunset in the coming years, and Governor Jerry Brown wanted an extension of the policy to cement his legacy during his final two years in office.

Mayes and his colleagues believed that by participating in negotiations with Jerry Brown, they could polish the Republican brand and start to reverse the trend that had plagued Republicans.

What ensued over the coming months was a process that put Mayes and other Republicans in the crosshairs of their voters and colleagues, and ultimately led to Mayes losing his job as leader of the Assembly Republican Caucus.

This analysis looks at why this strategy didn't play out the way Republican leadership might have expected and provides some lessons we can potentially learn from this brief episode in the California legislature. This analysis will avoid wading into the merits of the policies discussed and will instead focus on the political consequences.


In 2006, California passed the country's first "cap-and-trade" system, which was one mechanism among many aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions:

Under California’s [cap and trade system], the state sets a limit on how much greenhouse gases businesses can emit, and reduces the amount each year. Companies decide how to stay below the cap: They can buy permits to pollute through the auction, change operations to use energy more efficiently or pay for “offsets,” which are environmentally beneficial projects somewhere else that allow businesses to continue sending emissions into the atmosphere in California.
Cap and trade is among the most pioneering – yet controversial  – elements of California’s multi-layered approach to combating climate change. The program covers most major polluting industries and is generating billions of dollars for the state, money that must be poured into efforts to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

With this program scheduled to sunset in 2020, Jerry Brown, who was governor at the time, began efforts to negotiate an extension.

At the time the negotiations started in 2017, California Democrats held a 55-25 supermajority in the State Assembly and a 27-13 supermajority in the State Senate.

Needing only 41 votes to pass legislation in the Assembly and 21 votes in the Senate, Democrats typically had the ability to unilaterally pass legislation without any Republican votes. However, for the extension of cap-and-trade, Gov. Brown insisted on a 2/3 supermajority vote in order to protect the legislation from any future legal challenges.

Knowing that an extension of some sort was likely inevitable due to the partisan makeup of the chamber, Assembly Republican Leader Chad Mayes viewed the caucus' options as limited.

They could either participate in the process and theoretically bring about a relatively more moderate approach to reducing carbon emissions, or they could sit on the sidelines, potentially allowing a more hardline and progressive policy to become law.

Mayes and others opted for the former:

The state Chamber of Commerce and other business groups endorsed the extension, recognizing that cap and trade, based largely on free market exchanges, might be the best way to hold off more stringent regulations favored by the Democratic legislative majority. The law is “better than Soviet-style command and control,” Mayes told reporters.

While there was clear policy upside in the eyes of Mayes, this approach was politically risky for a few reasons:

a) He would be prominently featured as negotiating with a Democratic Governor to extend a policy generally seen as a Democratic priority.

b) In order to make his negotiating stance meaningful, he would need to ensure he carried a meaningful number of votes with him, which would require significant political legwork and capital.

c) If the legislation prevailed, he would have to own and sell it to party activists and the base Republican voters who vote heavily in primaries.

Aside from the perceived policy benefits of negotiating, Mayes also believed there was political upside:

Mayes, who has been leader since January 2016, said addressing climate change would show young voters in particular that the Republican Party was not obstructionist.
“I think for too long we’ve had a party that just wanted to be in opposition instead of wanting to be the proposition party,” Mayes said Thursday.

Mayes had presumably calculated that the long-term benefits of this strategy outweighed the potential risks.

After several months of negotiations and political infighting, Mayes – along with 6 other Assembly Republicans and one Senate Republican – voted to support a version of the extension that they viewed as the more moderate and palatable option.

Following the vote, Mayes understandably focused on the benefits:

By negotiating on cap-and-trade, Mayes saw an opportunity to improve the program and win policy concessions from Democrats. The resulting deal did away with a fire prevention fee charged to rural property owners and created a June 2018 ballot measure that would require a two-thirds legislative vote to spend money from the sale of cap-and-trade allowances in 2024.
“Estimates, of course – but we saved over 100,000 jobs (and) we cut $16 billion in direct costs to consumers,” Mayes said. “We literally cut taxes by $300 million or more, which hadn’t been done by a Republican leader in some time.”
“We took power away from government regulators and gave more to businesses to make decisions on their own,” Mayes said. “That’s what conservatives do.”

He was, unfortunately for him, the ultimate victim of the risks he took as well:

But for conservative critics, the entire episode was a betrayal of party principles and a tactical blunder. In their eyes, Mayes did nothing more than help liberals increase costs for California businesses and then take a victory lap. They accuse him of providing political cover to Democrats in the state Capitol while ignoring the wishes of his caucus, the majority of which opposed the legislation.
Perhaps worst of all, they said, a grinning Mayes posed for chummy photos with Brown and top Democratic lawmakers after the vote. Shawn Steel, one of California’s two representatives on the Republican National Committee, called it “repugnant.”
“What Chad has done is given us a big fat skunk on our plate, and he’s really hurt the party,” Steel said.
The dispute has led to the rare spectacle of top state Republican officials openly campaigning to oust a member of their party from a leadership position. County chairs, local committees and powerful donor groups have called on him to step down — including the GOP leaders of his home county of San Bernardino — and the state party’s board of directors is expected to vote on the issue Friday.

Shortly after, he was no longer leader:

Six weeks after helping Democrats revamp California’s landmark climate change policy and facing a torrent of anger from conservative critics, the Republican leader of the state Assembly agreed Thursday to step down and allow a rural Northern California lawmaker to lead the GOP’s fractured caucus.

Did Mayes' and other Republican's strategy ever really have a chance at working? There are three critical lessons that emerged from this process, and they might help answer that question.

Lesson 1: A good lawmaker is probably not a good party leader

On the one hand, being the leader of your party in the legislature allows you some leeway to lead your party in a given direction. By holding control over committee assignments, campaign funding, and infrastructure, you do hold some leverage over members of your party and can nudge them into line from time to time.

Being a party leader does not, however, give you leeway to lead your caucus in a direction they don't want to go. And by attempting to negotiate with Jerry Brown and the Democrats, Chad Mayes was doing exactly that.

Traditionally, politicians work to serve as the voice of their constituents: in the case of being Assembly Republican Leader, those constituents were the other Republican Assemblymembers.

One mechanism for detecting a consensus would have been to seek out the most conservative member of the caucus and ask what type of legislation they could support in the context of cap-and-trade. If the answer is "nothing", then you move leftward on the spectrum. If there is some version of legislation that a majority can get behind, then you move forward. If not, then it's probably better to sit the issue out.

Rather than attempting to gauge the attitude of the caucus as a whole and chart a course forward from that assessment, it appeared Mayes took a more top-down approach and essentially attempted to drag the caucus along the path he had charted forward.

As mentioned, sometimes nudging can be important – convincing one holdout member to go along with some sort of carrot or stick isn't entirely unusual. But Mayes' problem was that 2/3s of his caucus didn't want to vote for his negotiated legislation (and ultimately didn't).

When the Caucus ultimately voted Mayes out of his leadership position, it really shouldn't have come as any surprise to even the most casual follower of politics: if you do unpopular things in the eyes of your voters, your voters will vote you out of office.

Of course, those Republican Assemblymembers were attempting to represent their own constituency: their voters back home. And most determined that the voters probably wouldn't want them voting for cap-and-trade.

This is one of the reasons for the existence of the "Hastert rule" in Congress. The "Hastert rule" (while more of a political agreement rather than an actual "rule") effectively prohibited legislation from being brought to the floor unless it was supported by a majority of the majority party. The rule basically helped prevent a party mutiny just by its very existence. While Mayes represented the minority party, the rule would have nonetheless served him well in this case.

The other tactical error made was allowing too many members of the Republican caucus to vote for the legislation, which allowed three Democrats the flexibility to vote no on the bill while still allowing it to pass. Each Democrat was in a vulnerable, more conservative seat, and their vote against the proposal likely made it harder for Republicans hoping to unseat them the following election.

It's one thing to provide enough votes for a bill to pass. It's another to provide too many votes, allowing other party members to vote no.

It's unclear to me who exactly was at fault for this mathematical error, but it nonetheless came back on Mayes.

So what should Mayes have done? In my opinion, if he wanted to take bold stances as a pioneering lawmaker, he should not have sought leadership over the caucus. It's important for a legislature to have independent thinkers who are willing to buck their base from time to time. But those people should usually not be party leaders.

Mayes' goals were ultimately incongruent with the job he sought and held – leader of the Republican Assembly Caucus.

Lesson 2: Counterfactuals typically aren't good messages

The most prominent message coming from the Republicans supporting cap-and-trade negotiations was summed up by Devin Mathis, an Assemblymember who supported the negotiation process:

Well into the Assembly’s cap-and-trade debate Monday evening, a little-known Republican raised his microphone, asking to speak.
“This sucks,” said Asm. Devon Mathis (R-Visalia), “but there’s other things that suck more.”
As bad as cap-and-trade is, Mathis argued, it beats the heck out of top-down state regulations. Particularly for his district’s agriculture industry, which will get help buying greener farm equipment – and something less tangible, but far more valuable.

This was the argument waged as a defense against criticism from conservative activists. The argument is reasonable, but rarely successful with voters – particularly those who are already angrily opposed to your position: "You may hate this thing I'm supporting, but you would really hate what could be worse!" A voter would hypothetically respond: "I hate both."

The problem with this is two fold: First, is it violates the "if you're explaining, you're losing" rule.

Second is that the conservatives who this argument was trying to placate had already generally taken a position against the position these politicians were taking. They've already made up their mind, and it's generally hard to move a voter off of a position once they've taken it.

Third – and partly the reason it's often hard to move a voter off of that position – is that voters don't have the time, energy, or focus to weigh various political and legislative strategies. A politician either supports a proposal or he doesn't. That's as much depth as voters generally have a stomach for. The fact that the counterfactual argument was being used in the context of an arcane policy debate over carbon market dynamics exacerbated this problem.

To be clear, there are plenty of political insiders and some voters who do think strategically and are willing to accept the counterfactual argument. But this small group obviously does not represent a very large share of the electorate.

Lesson 3: Applying the Innovator's Dilemma to politics

Famed Harvard professor and businessman Clay Christensen coined the term "Innovator's Dilemma" to explain why certain businesses fail to capture next wave of opportunity for growth. The following quote from Christensen describes this predicament:

Successful companies want their resources to be focused on activities that address customers’ needs, that promise higher profits, that are technologically feasible, and that help them play in substantial markets. Yet, to expect the processes that accomplish those things also to do something like nurturing disruptive technologies – to focus resources on proposals that customers reject, that offer lower profit, that underperform existing technologies and can only be sold in insignificant markets– is akin to flapping one’s arms with wings strapped to them in an attempt to fly.”

In other words, companies become so good at serving their existing customers that it becomes hard (and even counterproductive) to anticipate and pivot to what new customers might want. I think this lesson can apply to politics as well.

I would argue that the biggest failure of the cap-and-trade experience is it poorly navigated – or was the wrong solution to – this dilemma.

Here is how I would summarize the dilemma, as applied to politics:

In essence, political parties survive and flourish by providing products (policies) that make their customers (voters) happy. Yet, as the market (electorate) evolves, parties need to be agile enough to capture new customers (voters) while avoiding products (policies) that their current customers (voters) reject.

The Republican Assembly leadership was correct in assuming they'd need to offer new products in order to grow their base of customers over the long-term. The problem, in my view, is that cap-and-trade was not the correct product. And I would argue it was not that product because a) their current Republican base of voters totally hated it and b) I'm not sure potential new voters found it all that compelling.

Why did the Republican base hate cap-and-trade? A key reason was the fact that similar legislation had been kicked around at the federal level by Barack Obama in 2009. While the legislation narrowly passed the House, it died in the Senate. But throughout the process, conservative coverage of the proposal negatively and forcefully portrayed the bill as a "cap-and-tax" program.

In addition, with Jerry Brown (an unpopular figure among the Republican base) leading the negotiations, the proposal saw added toxicity. By the very nature of his prominent leadership on the issue, it became partisan and ideological.

So you can see how the Republicans were moving away from their own customers. It's as if McDonald's one day announced they were removing all meat from their menu: you can imagine their loyal customers would be quite upset.

But was it worth the heat from the base if the party were to pick up new voters?

I am unconvinced this approach yielded much in terms of new voters. I say this because for many voters, environmental issues and climate change are something they express concern about, but rarely an issue they actually vote on (the economy, crime, education, and other "daily life" issues almost always rank much higher).

For the voters who do vote on environmental issues, they probably aren't super impressed with negotiated, more pragmatic solutions. These are highly ideological voters who see climate change as a cataclysmic problem. They are likely those who are intensely passionate about the environment and climate change; and when picking which party to go with, they will vote for the party with the bolder policies relating to climate change. And that was obviously the Democrats.

To continue the analogy, it's as if McDonald's announced they were removing meat products from their menu, but would still be cooking some of their food in animal fat. Their existing customer base is upset, and they didn't go far enough to generate favor with a new customer base (vegans).

A better approach, in my opinion, would have been to seize an issue that allowed the party to take a position that:

a) Would not have been objectionable to the base
b) Offered voters who vote on that issue a bolder policy than what the Democrats were offering

The fatal flaw with the cap-and-trade negotiation was the Republicans were basically competing on enemy territory. They were battling in an area that offered limited possibilities of gains while leaving their rear flank exposed.

Ultimately, the better approach would have been to engage on an issue that carried much less ideological weight. But even that probably wouldn't have reversed the trend the party was facing.

With political trends moving away from Republicans, Trump in the White House, and a small minority in the legislature, your party doesn't have too many options. And when the views of your voters are shaped more by what the federal government does, it's hard to move voters in your state in a direction that's different than what national Republicans are doing – particularly with a Republican president in the White House.

Mayes asked an important question, and one that thoughtful people in party leadership positions should be asking: “The question for me is, what are we going to do in the future to begin to look like a party that people in California want to join?”

It's just that in this case, there may not have been a correct answer. Or at least an answer that made sense for Chad Mayes. And he probably knew that going in.

Brian Dahle, the party leader who would succeed Mayes, summed it up accurately:

But Mayes “moved a little faster than the party could keep up with,” Dahle said during an interview at the Sacramento fundraiser.
“He takes huge gambles. And unfortunately it was maybe too fast for some of the Republicans in California.”