justin salters

Justin Salters

It’s official. Bakersfield Democrats outnumber Republicans.

Yes, Bakersfield. The venerable citadel of California Conservatism and Republican politics has 1,000 more Democrats than Republicans. As The Bakersfield Californian reported, “Bakersfield has gone blue.”

But Republicans aren’t really turning blue, they’re just going away. From the Republican Party, that is.

In 2000, Republicans made up 46.3 percent of Bakersfield voters. This most recent report has us at just 36 percent. Over the same period, Democrats have gone from 36.5 percent of voters to – wait for it – 36 percent of voters.

Democrats haven’t flourished. Republicans have flopped.

Bakersfield voters haven’t left the Republican Party because the Democratic Party offered them better solutions. They’ve become “independent.” Without a party that speaks to them, they’re rejecting commitment altogether.

The trend toward “decline to state” is present in all age groups and demographics, but it’s especially common among younger voters. Young voters see how deep, structural shifts have affected our social and economic systems, but that neither party offers adequate solutions.

These shifts have stagnated social mobility, widened inequality and spread a pervasive sense of insecurity. We see the effects across the nation and in our own backyards. Anxiety and depression are at all-time highs. Toxic stress syndrome is killing our neighbors. Our unraveling social fabric needs mending.

At a time when polls indicate our nation is growing further apart, young people are searching for a party that brings people together.

The national Republican Party is mired by insurgent nationalist populism. Our state party is disregarded as “an interest group.” Next-generation, reform conservatives are trying to renew the dynamism at the heart of the Republican Party.

I know, because I’m one of them. Many of my friends are, too.

Friends with real experience in politics and government. They’ve been part of campaigns. People who have worked in presidential administrations. They’re sharp, affable and civil. More importantly, they have ideas for reform that move our community forward. Ideas that don’t just start with taxes and end with bloated bureaucracy.

More importantly, they see political coalitions differently.

We’re in the middle of political realignment. There are evangelical Christians who believe climate change and social justice are the most important political issue of our day. Gays and lesbians fighting for tax cuts and school reform.

Next-generation Republicans recognize that overly simplistic labels like the “Religious Right” and “Heathen Left” fail to describe our new political reality. These changes don’t frighten us. They excite us.

But instead of finding opportunities to dive into grassroots activism, we often encounter preservationist power structures. So, we’re registering as independents or remaining Republican in party preference only.

A friend told me why she’s checked out of local politics. “Our local party abandoned Big-Tent Republicanism,” she said. “I’ve had smart, diverse Republican friends run for office and face more opposition from other Republicans than any Democrat. It’s a system that’s left me jaded. One that I can’t be part of.”

My friend gave voice to a complaint I hear from many. They should be our rising leaders, but they aren’t.

It’s hard to blame them.

Back to purple Bakersfield.

City council and county supervisorial seats are non-partisan. And while non-partisan, these seats are important as a pipeline for political talent.

Local Republicans used to be known for a deep bench of strong candidates. It’s the bench that produced leaders like Congressman Kevin McCarthy, Assemblyman Vince Fong and Supervisor Zack Scrivner. Today, there is none. Evidence of the fractures in our local Republican Party.

Local Republicans are at a crossroads.

If we want to restore our pipeline of Republican political talent, two big things need to happen.

First, we have to create opportunities for next-generation Republicans. Serving on city councils and school boards can be rewarding and fulfilling. But new talent won’t emerge if there isn’t space for it to develop. Especially in safe Republican seats. The average age of Republicans on the Bakersfield City Council is 65. It’s time for new leaders to emerge.

Second, next-generation Republicans need to commit and get involved.

I, too, have been dismayed, but I decided I’d had enough sitting on the sidelines. I’m now a delegate to the California Republican Party. I re-joined the Kern County Young Republicans. I even volunteered with the Republican Party at the Kern County Fair. They’re small steps, but steps nonetheless.

As Teddy Roosevelt said, it’s not the critic who counts. It’s the man (or woman) in the arena. We need more next-generation Republicans to get in the arena.

Left to themselves, demographic trends don’t look good for Republicans in our region. We have to find a way to reenergize.

This year, it’s 1,000 more Democrats than Republicans. What about 2027?

Contributing columnist Justin Salters writes weekly on politics, culture and civic engagement; the views expressed are his own. Reach him at Facebook.com/thatjustinsalters, Twitter @justinsalters or justin@justinsalters.com.

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