How the Republicans Lost California

The Golden State isn't too liberal for the GOP. Its leaders simply scared away immigrant voters.

Just 10 years ago, California was a GOP bastion, regarded as the cornerstone of the Republican Electoral College “lock.”

The 1990 elections merely confirmed this impression, with the GOP winning its third gubernatorial race in a row, its fifth of seven. Two years earlier, the 1988 presidential race had marked the sixth straight California victory for the Republicans, with only Barry Goldwater’s 1964 debacle marring an otherwise unbroken chain of GOP victories stretching all the way back to Ike’s 1952 landslide. In national politics, California was about as safely Republican as Wyoming or Idaho.

Yet today all this has been transformed, with huge California — which now has almost the population of Texas and New York combined — being viewed as the most solidly Democratic state in the nation after tiny Hawaii. Although the state’s economy, cultural influence and political weight are greater than ever before, its Democratic alignment is now seen as so permanent that it recently inspired a sour-grapes cover story entitled “California Doesn’t Count” in The Weekly Standard, a leading publication of the conservative Beltway.

But California does count. Given today’s electoral map, any Republican able to carry California would almost be guaranteed the White House; the vanished Republican “lock” would reappear. And following the completion of the 2000 Census, California’s congressional delegation will swell to nearly twice the size of New York’s, with enough contested seats to allow the Golden State’s voters by themselves to determine control of the House of Representatives.

Furthermore, California’s influence is far greater than ever before. Since World War II, California has been recognized as America’s trendsetter in social and economic matters. Increasing globalization has now elevated Hollywood and Silicon Valley to being the entire world’s dominant influences in culture and technology. California may not count to conservative Washington pundits, but to the rest of the world it counts perhaps as much as America’s other 49 states combined.

Yet if California has risen, the fortunes of its Republican Party have fallen to the point of near collapse. The Democrats hold both U.S. Senate seats, seven of eight statewide offices and huge majorities in each house of the state Legislature. In the 1998 governor’s race, Democrat Gray Davis, a dull and rather uninspiring campaigner, crushed his well-funded Republican opponent in the greatest California political landslide in 40 years.

What happened to the Republicans? The media’s conventional wisdom holds that California’s population is far too liberal on the social issues — abortion, gay rights and gun control — for today’s conservative GOP positions to be viable. But while Californians are indeed more socially liberal than Texans or Pennsylvanians, this contrast is often exaggerated. This is largely because most members of the media themselves tend to be socially liberal, and their trips to California usually take them to trendy San Francisco and the west side of Los Angeles, rather than to California’s vast agricultural Central Valley, whose values are closer to those of Oklahoma than of Greenwich Village.

Moreover, California’s relative social liberalism compared with the rest of the country has probably not changed much over the past 30 or 40 years. As far back as the 1960s, the Golden State enacted one of America’s most liberal abortion laws, the national gay rights movement began in San Francisco and the waves of California student protests eventually helped create the left-liberal George McGovern wing of the Democratic Party. Yet during all these years, Californians consistently voted for Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George Bush, as well as numerous conservative candidates for governor and U.S. Senate.

Immigration and anti-immigrant Republican politics were the colliding forces that forever swept away this old world of California politics.

By the end of the 1980s, vast waves of foreign immigration, mostly from Asia and Latin America, had changed California into a state that was nearly half nonwhite and nearly half immigrant. But since few members of these new immigrant families were registered voters and many were not even citizens, they had minimal electoral impact, and political leaders largely ignored California’s ethnic transformation.

To the extent that Republicans did notice, they were cautiously optimistic. Statewide and national Republican candidates had traditionally carried nearly half of the Asian and Latino vote in California, and Republicans expected this pattern to continue with newer Asians and Latinos. In 1990, moderate Republican Pete Wilson won his gubernatorial race by combining strong opposition to “quotas” with pro-immigrant and pro-Latino themes, thereby carrying 47% of the Latino vote and doing even better among Asians than among whites. Bruce Herschensohn, a very conservative Republican, did almost as well in his unsuccessful race for the U.S. Senate in 1992.

All this changed with California’s deep recession of the early 1990s, as high unemployment and economic misery provoked an anti-immigrant backlash among California’s white political majority. Immigrants were blamed for stealing jobs and lowering wages; their children were seen as a huge burden to the expensive and overcrowded public-school system. Anger at immigrants focused on those without documentation, and surveys revealed that white Californians mistakenly lumped most immigrants into the illegal category.

Enraged grassroots activists of all parties mobilized against illegal immigration, a populist and somewhat xenophobic crusade that eventually gave rise to Proposition 187, a 1994 ballot initiative. This controversial measure was intended to immediately expel some 300,000 young immigrant children — many of them American-born citizens — from California public schools if their parents lacked legal documentation.

Gov. Wilson, in an uphill re-election race against the terrible economic tide, had originally refused to support this extremist proposal and even tried to prevent it from reaching the ballot. But observing its enormous popularity, he ultimately chose to use it as the centerpiece of his gubernatorial campaign. Mr. Wilson spent millions on television spots showing gritty images of Mexicans dashing across the border, provoking the crudest stereotypes of dark-skinned hordes swarming into California for welfare and crime. With an electorate mired in recession and 85% white, Mr. Wilson’s wedge-issue strategy carried him to a landslide victory.

Proposition 187 was quickly ruled unconstitutional, and the political impact of Mr. Wilson’s harsh television commercials might soon have faded. But his political success inspired the newly elected Republican Congress to spend much of 1995 and 1996 repeatedly attacking the rights and benefits of both legal and illegal immigrants. For immigrants, the only means of defense was naturalization and registration, and they did both in unprecedented numbers, roughly doubling California’s Latino vote between 1992 and 1998. Most of these new voters regarded both Mr. Wilson and his Republican Party as their mortal foes. Demographic trends indicate that California’s Latino vote will continue to rise about one percentage point each year for the next 30 years.

Latino and other immigrant voters tend to be socially conservative, blue-collar Reagan Democrats, and they eventually might warm to a Republican Party message; they voted more strongly than any other group against gay marriage in the March initiative campaign. However, being working-class, they are overwhelming pro-union, and whereas Mr. Reagan’s union sentiments were strong, today’s Republicans regard the American labor movement as their archenemy. If Republican anti-immigrant policies pushed California’s immigrants into the Democratic Party, Republican anti-union policies may help to keep them there.

These are the enormous difficulties facing any Republican campaign in California, notably that of George W. Bush. For all his pro-immigrant outreach and Spanish-language advertising, the California Field Poll shows Gov. Bush trailing Al Gore by 34 percentage points among California Latinos and 13 points overall, not too different from where Bob Dole stood at this stage. We’ll see whether Mr. Bush narrows the gap by November.

Mr. Unz led the successful 1998 campaign for Proposition 227, which dismantled California’s bilingual-education system.

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