How blue is Santa Cruz? Republicans in Santa Cruz County certainly look like a permanent minority

Signs touting Democratic candidates abounded ahead of Election Day in blue Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

For local Republicans, blue is the color of ice, and they’re trapped in a deep freeze. But, Wallace Baine wonders, is the gradual but inexorable phenomenon of Americans clustering geographically to reflect their political orientations really good for Santa Cruz County? Good for America?

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The most iconic figures in America at the time were Jimmy Carter, Rocky Balboa, and The Fonz. Apple Computers was founded. “Hotel California” was released. And you could purchase a Ford Pinto for less than $3,000.


That was 1976, and it was the last time that Santa Cruz County was represented by a Republican in Congress. Deep cut trivia answer: That congressman’s name was Burt Talcott, a World War II fighter pilot who went on to serve on the Monterey County Board of Supervisors and then seven terms in Congress. The person sitting in that seat now, Rep. Jimmy Panetta, was 9 years old at the time. In fact, it was Panetta’s famous father, Leon Panetta (an ex-Republican, we should note) who unseated Talcott in that bicentennial year.

In the 1980s, the county was split between congressional districts, and the district that represented Silicon Valley spilled into northern parts of Santa Cruz County. So the last time a Republican represented any part of Santa Cruz County was 1992. That congressman was Tom Campbell, a former Stanford law professor, who in 2016 was one of 30 former Republican members of Congress to denounce the candidacy of Donald Trump. He then fled the Republican Party, registering as independent — right around the time, coincidentally, that Burt Talcott died.

Of course, Talcott and Campbell were Republicans of another age, about as relevant to today’s MAGA-dominant GOP as Bronko Nagurski is relevant to today’s NFL.

That’s the state of things for Republicans in Santa Cruz County, one of the bluest corners in the bluest region in the bluest state in the U.S. Three weeks ago, Jimmy Panetta won reelection to the newly redistricted 19th District with a whopping 80% of the vote. That’s the kind of number you might not even reach on a ballot referendum declaring water to be wet. “Permanent” is a big and scary word, but the Republican situation locally is what permanent-minority status looks like.

Just how blue is Santa Cruz? In terms of Democratic Party registration, it comes in at a smidge under 60%, ranking a few percentage points behind San Francisco and Marin County, and less than half a percentage point behind Alameda County, which contains Oakland and Berkeley. Republican registration in Santa Cruz County is 13.68% — anemic, yes, but not the lowest number in California. Republicans in San Francisco come in at 6.74%, which might qualify them for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Crunching the numbers of voter registration in Santa Cruz County doesn’t yield much in terms of surprises. Republican registration in the city of Santa Cruz hovers around 8%, which is almost San Francisco-esque. It’s pretty low in Watsonville as well, at 10.7%.

GOP registration is highest locally in Scotts Valley, at just above 21%. But even that number can give scant comfort to Republicans. Back in 2016, Republicans amounted to almost 28% of the electorate there. The difference between 2016 and 2022 mirrors almost exactly Democratic gains in Scotts Valley since then.

Registration statistics are, of course, a blunt tool in discerning any kind of nuance. Numbers in Santa Cruz and Watsonville might look similar, but demographic, economic and political factors are vastly different between the two cities. Stats of the five supervisorial districts in Santa Cruz County gives us a sense of which part of the county is most typical of the county as a whole. Not surprisingly, it’s the 1st District, which is right in the middle between Santa Cruz and Watsonville. Maybe a new civic tag line is born: “Soquel: Santa Cruz County’s most statistically median community!”

Neither do these statistics tell us a lot about the ideology and values of Republicans in Santa Cruz County. The MAGA movement has been such a fundamental force in American politics, it’s absurd to believe it has gained no foothold locally. Mostly, Republicans running in 2022 — Monterey’s Jeff Gorman and San Benito’s Peter Hernandez for Congress, and Liz Lawler for state office — ran as moderates, on traditional law-and-order, business-friendly conservatism.

It very well could be that some local Republicans and traditional conservatives took the Tom Campbell path and bailed on the party during the Trump years, throwing their lot in with either the Democrats or No Party Preference, leaving behind a deep-red core of Trump allegiance. Or, just as plausibly, Republicans on the Northern California coast may represent the last bastion of Reagan-esque, free-enterprise, libertarian-leaning conservatives who just aren’t willing to surrender their party to the MAGA hordes.

It’s clear, however, that over the course of the past few decades, Santa Cruz County has graduated from a classic Miles Davis album (“Kind of Blue”) to a classic Joni Mitchell album (“Blue”). For practical purposes, a two-thirds majority in the political realm is a hammer-lock. And if you combine Democratic Party registration with No Party Preference registration, the forces arrayed against the GOP locally is more like four-fifths. For local Republicans, blue is the color of ice, and they’re trapped in a deep freeze.

So, is this all good for America? For California? For Santa Cruz County? For more than a decade, demographers and political scientists have been talking about the “Big Sort,” the gradual but inexorable phenomenon of Americans clustering geographically to reflect their political orientations. There is no reason to believe that Santa Cruz County is somehow immune to that phenomenon. Anecdotally, many of us have known people pouring into or fleeing from Santa Cruz for political reasons. What we don’t know is if there is a bottom to this trend. Are local Republicans down to their irreducible core? Or will their numbers continue to dwindle?

The result of the Big Sort locally is an electorate dependably blue for the foreseeable future. Does that mean, for Democratic voters, that Santa Cruz County is now vying with Disneyland for the title of “The Happiest Place on Earth”? Not even a little bit.

Even if registered Republicans were largely irrelevant in the big political clashes of 2022 — the “rail trail” Measure D back in June, and the library referendum Measure O earlier in November — the divisions were nevertheless profound. Those divisions just happen to be between people who all fit more or less comfortably under the big blue umbrella.

Which leads us to the crippling limitations of our simplistic, binary, red-blue political narrative. Both the Democratic and Republican parties are cracking from the pressure of having to contain so many rambunctious, mutually suspicious factions. A two-party system in such an environment is a lot like color-blindness. Imagine the richness with which we could figure out who we are as a people if there were four, five, eight political parties. That way, red and blue wouldn’t represent two vast mutually hostile armies or two formidable and unbroken bars in a graph. Rather, they would be only two shades in a vast bloom of political values containing every color in the rainbow.

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