California -- The Next Great Hope for Conservatives?

Last week’s Republican victory in the New Jersey gubernatorial election shows that even states often reliable for Democrat victories can sometimes tire of liberal excess. Next November may bring a repeat of this in another state that ordinarily leans left: California. Prolonged liberal governance has brought California to the brink of abyss. The state is battered by high taxes, unemployment, deficits, hyper-regulation and a crumbling infrastructure. Its capital is dominated by Democrats, tempered modestly by a liberal Republican governor. But there may be reason for hope in the Golden State more than at any time in years.

It is easy to forget that California was once the leading edge of conservative progress. Taxes, hippies and a burgeoning welfare state in the 1960s and 70s gave rise to voters striking back through two terms of Ronald Reagan as governor and small-government laws like 1978’s Proposition 13, which curbed property taxes, and 1979’s Gann Limit, which capped the growth in state spending. The decade that followed was as prosperous for California as it was for the rest of America: aerospace, farming, technology and energy industries thrived, and the state’s population grew 26 percent to 30 million residents.

Today, California has fallen so far so fast that the ground could be ripe for a conservative resurgence—another generational pullback from the brink. Things are not just bad in the Golden State; they are appalling. And the state’s political class shows little sign of reticence or reserve even as the state has lurched further into the red.

California’s budget gap has been estimated at times this year to be as high as $60 billion. The chief culprits are the massive growth in government—state spending grew 66 percent from 2000-2007—and a collapse in revenue. This year, the legislature increased taxes by $12.5 billion and covered $6 billion more with new borrowing and creative accounting. Sacramento voted to raise the top income tax rate to 10.55 percent—now the highest of any state. This is a tried-and-true job-killer and an inducement for businesses and productive workers to move, especially considering neighboring Nevada collects no income taxes at all. California’s unemployment rate has jumped from 7.8 to 12.2 percent in just one year and is considerably higher than the national rate. California accounts for 12 percent of the U.S. Population but 32 percent of the welfare caseload thanks to lax standards established by the legislature.

Such fiscal insanity appears to have put voters in a mood to consider alternatives. The legislature has the lowest approval rating in history: a Field Poll last month found that 78 percent of the state’s registered voters disapprove. Only 13 percent have a favorable view. In a special election in May, voters overwhelmingly rejected a package of measures that would have raised taxes, increased spending and used accounting gimmicks to help close the deficit.

One might think that these signals would chasten Sacramento. But the expansion of government remains on autopilot. California just became the first state to provide free legal advice to the poor in civil cases, rather than just criminal actions in which they are the defendant. In September, the state took the penultimate step to remove four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River to please radical environmentalists. That move will eventually cost taxpayers and electricity consumers half a billion dollars or more. The thirst to tax, borrow and spend seems unquenchable. It is reasonable to wonder if the state is doomed to a cycle of ever-higher taxes, expanded government and economic malaise—turning it into a west coast Michigan.

But likely standing athwart that possibility are Californians themselves, a majority of whom view themselves as progressive but whose self-image also reflects economic opportunity and prosperity. Immigrants and transplants from other states comprise a large portion of the state’s residents, many of whom moved here to pursue dreams unobtainable elsewhere. As Mark Twain once said: “The easy and slothful didn’t come to California. They stayed home.” While dissimilar from more libertarian and conservative populations of the interior western states, California’s majority is nonetheless ill inclined to accept prolonged decline and a state government that seems most interested in featherbedding for state employees and unions.

To make inroads, Republicans will need to overcome an impaired brand and structural challenges, including a weak political party establishment and a lack of effective conservative voices. Prominent Republicans from elsewhere have tended to limit their forays as well, looking at more conservative-leaning precincts in California as places to raise money, but not to make electoral gains. In recent years, conservatives have not been defeated so much as they have often seemed absent from the field of play.

But the combination of California’s liberal-induced malaise coupled with a significant rise in self-identified independents could provide a rare opportunity to draw Californians to new voices with new solutions. Conditions are particularly favorable for new political entrepreneurs who can pitch conservatism in progressive terms. And while much attention will be paid to next year’s election, which includes a gubernatorial contest, conservatives should also get a second bite at the apple in 2012. In that election, a comprehensive anti-gerrymandering law enacted by voters last year will make redistricting a wild card. There may be more competitive races than at anytime in a generation. Alas, there is hope yet for the Golden State.

Christian Whiton and Greg Jenkins served in the administration of President George W. Bush.