California’s primary election last week underlined the critical importance of an oft-overlooked part of the electorate–Reagan Democrats. Largely ignored in recent years by politicians catering to fashionable, socially liberal, suburban "soccer moms," working- and middle-class families with incomes between $20,000 and $75,000 a year constituted nearly three in five California voters this year.

Like the traditionally Democrat-leaning voters who swept Ronald Reagan into the governorship and then the presidency, these working- and middle-class voters have long embraced a strong blend of social conservatism and economic populism. In the 1980s, they flocked to the Reagan banner. Where they go in the last years of this century may well determine the fate of the Republican Party nationwide.

California’s first-ever "open primary"–in which all candidates run on the same ballot and the top vote-getter from each party advances to November–revealed how much the Reagan Democrats are slouching back toward their ancestral home. In both the governor’s race and the contest over Proposition 226, which would have restricted the ability of unions to spend their member’s funds on political causes, working- and middle-class voters largely followed the lead of the state’s increasingly effective trade-union establishment. Nearly three-fifths of voters from families making $20,000 to 40,000 a year, and two-thirds of all union members, opposed Proposition 226, while Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, organized labor’s favored candidate, won by far the largest share of middle- and working-class voters. "The Reagan Democrats have become Clinton Democrats," maintains Richard Rothstein of the labor-backed Economic Policy Institute.

Startling Rebuke

In contrast, the Republicans–their turnout somewhat depressed by the lack of a serious contest for the gubernatorial nomination–were rebuked in startling fashion. Whereas Ronald Reagan, a former union executive with working-class origins, thrived on the votes of moderate-income people, barely one-third of these voters, and less than a quarter of union members, backed Republican Attorney General Dan Lungren for governor. Conservative pollster Arnie Steinberg traces this dissaffection to the widespread perception that Republican support for Proposition 226 was motivated not by concern for union members’ rights, but by narrow political calculations aimed at crippling their opponents in the trade union movement.

"What Reagan had was a disarming way to open communication," notes Mr. Steinberg, who has been a key strategist on conservative-backed ballot measures, including this year’s Proposition 227, which ended the state’s bilingual education program. "Now there’s too much of a political hard edge and not enough principle."

Economics, long a GOP strong point, also may be contributing to a populist lurch to the left. In 1994, with the state’s economy still teetering back from the brink of recession, many middle- and working-class voters, particularly whites and Asian-Americans, blamed the Democrat-controlled legislature. But now, with the economy expanding rapidly, the focus on California’s competitiveness has been replaced by a greater concern for economic equity. In 1996, for example, over two-thirds of voters endorsed a big boost in the minimum wage.

This is not surprising. Like elsewhere in the country, the Clinton expansion has proven less "democratic"–in terms of wealth distribution–than the much-reviled "decade of greed" in the 1980s. Between 1990 and 1995 the median family income for the vast majority of wage earners actually declined slightly while the number of people with a net worth over $1 million more than doubled.

The Clinton economy’s tendency toward wealth concentration is evident in the two main engines of the state’s economic resurgence: high technology and entertainment. In the 1990s, according to one recent report, the ratio of earnings between top Silicon Valley corporate executives and production workers rose to 220 to 1 in 1996 from 41 to 1 five years earlier. In Hollywood today, a leading expert estimates, 60% of the wealth goes to people "above the line," such as producers ,directors, and stars, and the rest to the grips, set-designers and other working types. A decade ago the creative types got just 40%.

As California’s economy becomes more high-tech and more flexible in dealing with world markets, with greater reliance on smaller firms, working- and middle-class voters are understandably concerned that the economic elites may be swallowing too large a share of the Golden State’s treasure. In such a climate, argues Art Pulaski, executive secretary of the California Labor Federation, many working people harbor negative views about plutocratic interests–including rich candidates like failed gubernatorial hopefuls Al Checchi and Rep. Jane Harman.

"The class issues become very important when people of such wealth run for office," suggests Mr. Pulaski. "People may say they are more secure economically, but I don’t see it. You still see concern with jobs moving overseas and corporate restructuring."

Yet if the Republicans for the moment are losing their traditional primacy on pocketbook issues, they could be making significant headway on education, traditionally the strongest issue for California Democrats. Many working- and middle-class voters appear to be losing patience with the state’s liberally oriented educrats and their failed pedagogical ideologies. An estimated three-fifths of these voters, and a solid majority of union households, backed Proposition 227, ending the bilingual program. Among Latinos, roughly 40% backed the measure, despite almost total opposition from their political leadership and a massive anti-227 ad campaign funded largely by the mostly Anglo owners of Spanish-language media.

These Latino voters may be the key to the future disposition of the Reagan Democrats. Now roughly 12% of the electorate, twice the percentage just four years ago, Latinos predominate in the state’s industrial workforce, particularly in Southern California. For the moment they appear to have bought the labor-liberal line, opposing Proposition 226 three to one. "Latinos identify with the working class, even when they are not working class," notes Loyola University political scientist Fernando Guerra. "That’s where most of them came from."

Yet, Mr. Guerra points out, Latinos also tend, like traditional Reagan Democrats, to be socially conservative on issues such as abortion, welfare and crime. Their resentments do much to explain how State Superintendent of Schools Delaine Eastin, a favorite tool of the educrat establishment, received only 43% of the primary vote in the face of underfunded opposition. Her opponent in the fall, Gloria Matta Tuchman, who received 26% of the vote, is a Latina crusader against bilingual education and a longtime elementary school teacher from Orange County.

To win over Latino and other blue-collar voters, however, Republicans will also need an economic answer to the populist message presented by the unions and their Democratic allies. One possible winning issue, suggests Mr. Guerra, may be the GOP’s proposed elimination of the car tax, averaging roughly $200 annually. Democratic leaders, citing possible negative impacts on local government finances, have sworn to oppose the tax cut.

Not a Luxury

The car-tax issue, which helped Republicans to a strong victory in the 1997 governor’s race in Virginia, could work particularly well in California, where a car represents not a luxury but an essential for getting to work. "Democrats are making a mistake with the car tax," Mr. Guerra warns. "The Latino voters, the working-class voters will struggle with this issue. It’s a regressive tax, and it hurts working class people–end of story."

Three decades ago, Republicans under Mr. Reagan used such a combination of populist economics, including tax cuts and social conservatism, to create the Reagan Democrats. Whether these voters now belong permanently to Bill Clinton and his union allies depends largely on whether a new generation of Republican leaders can adopt similar tactics.


Mr. Kotkin is a senior fellow with the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy and a research fellow with the Reason Foundation.

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