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Why California Booted the GOP - and Other States Will Too

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The California Republican Party
The California Republican Party
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

On Tuesday, Mitt Romney will walk away with the California Republican primary and continue on his path to challenge Barack Obama for the leadership of this country.

In November, on election day, exactly the opposite will happen. Obama will crush Romney in California, just as every Democratic presidential candidate has thrashed every Republican there for the last twenty years. Today, California is competing with Massachusetts and Vermont for the title of bluest state in the Union. Democrats utterly dominate state politics and run all the major cities from north to south, Los Angeles to the Bay Area.

As for the state’s Republicans, they used to roam the freeways and cul-de-sacs in great, thundering herds. Now, they cling to a few isolated enclaves along the beaches of San Diego, farmlands of the Central Valley, and retirement communities near the Oregon border. And they are old and white in a state that's increasingly young and brown.

Two decades of immigration and changing demographics have steadily eroded the Republican base in the Golden State. But rather than adapt to this new reality, the state party lurched deep into the far-right swamplands of American politics. As the state grew more socially liberal, the last of the Republicans doubled down on conservatism, and sank into irrelevancy.

But this is no local story. What happened in California is just beginning to happen all over the country. The GOP’s most reliable supporters are increasingly crammed into the South and the Midwest, energized by an ever more embattled sense of grievance and cultural alienation, while the rest of the country becomes younger, more multicultural, and more socially liberal. This trend is only going to accelerate, and unless Mitt Romney and his colleagues come to their senses and find a way to reverse it, the GOP is looking at a generation in the electoral wilderness.

And Republicans will have done it to themselves. Just like they did in California.

From the late 1960s through the ‘80s, California was a Republican paradise. White suburban families propelled men like Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, and governor George Deukmejian to the heights of power, and Orange County, just south of LA, was synonymous with political and cultural conservatism. But by the early 1990s, the Party’s base was growing more and more anxious. The aerospace and defense industries were shriveling, and metropolitan liberals were spilling over from Hollywood and San Francisco, transforming cities like San Jose from farm communities into expensive high-tech centers. In the biggest and most visible shift, the Latino population was surging, making up 25 percent of the state’s population by 1990.

In 1994, incumbent Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, faced a tough reelection fight. The recession was still lingering in California, and he had to answer for it. His Democratic challenger was Kathleen Brown, the sister of Jerry Brown and a tough political fighter. Wilson needed something to distract voters from the economy – something that would spook enough of them into rallying behind him.

He found it. Wilson pulled his campaign together by running on two divisive state ballot initiatives – Proposition 184, the notorious "Three Strikes" law, which played into suburban residents’ fear of crime, fears stirred up by the Rodney King riots just two years earlier; and the sinister Proposition 187 – the "Save our State" initiative, which conjured images of parasitical Latinos swarming into California and proposed denying social services such as public education and some medical care to the children of illegal immigrants.

"They had a famous ad that showed undocumented immigrants streaming across the border, and it was sort of the rats streaming onto the ship," says Bruce Cain, a UC Berkeley political science professor and longtime observer of California politics. "It was extremely offensive, but it worked for Pete Wilson."

Did it ever. Not only did Wilson win reelection, the Republicans made historic gains in the state legislature, winning a majority in the state Assembly for the first time in years. But the strategy would prove to be the white sugar of California politics: tasty in the short term, but disastrous in the years ahead.

As the 1990s wore on, Republicans overplayed their hand, pushing one racially-tinged wedge issue after another at the ballot box, banning Affirmative Action, ending bilingual education in the public schools, and enacting a new round of draconian punishments for juvenile delinquents. They rode these propositions to victory, but alienated the Latino population and propelled a wave of white resentment that now defines Republican politics. "It was a case of, 'Hey this worked, let’s keep pushing that button,'" Cain says. "But once you start doing that, you unleash forces within your own party that you can’t really control."

Moderate Republicans like Tom Campbell soon found themselves increasingly uncomfortable. From 1988 to 2000, Campbell served in Congress as the representative of the small towns and start-ups around Stanford University – the heart of Silicon Valley. Back in the early 1990s, Republicans like Campbell could easily fit into the culture of high-tech.

"When I was first running for office, if you were to encounter a registered Republican in Silicon Valley, there was a very high probability that they were pro-choice, had gay friends," he says. "And if you said people should have semi-automatic weapons on the streets of downtown San Jose, let’s just say you were perceived as not having a practical approach to city government."

But by the end of 1990s, he could hardly recognize his own party. Republicans abandoned his fiscally conservative but socially liberal voters, and embraced the mantra of "Gays, God and Guns." Today, he concedes, no Republican could possibly win his old seat. "The views that I had – and have – reflect Silicon Valley, but it doesn’t reflect the Republican Party statewide. Silicon Valley is now overwhelmingly registered Democrat."

Aside from Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger – who was elected only by dint of a bizarre recall circus in 2003, and was despised by his own conservative base – almost no Republican has won statewide office since the mid-1990s. From Latinos to black voters and urban professionals, the Republican Party managed to alienate every growing segment of California society, all for the sake of inflaming the passions of the one demographic group that was actually shrinking.

As the party’s base withered, the rump that was left became utterly dominated by the most strident conservatives, pushing the party further to the right and speeding up the process of marginalization. The Republican primary elections became a particularly lethal trap; year after year, the party’s activists produced a candidate so extreme that he or she had no chance in the general election. In 2003, Republican state Senate Minority Leader Jim Brulte, who did not respond to a call requesting comment for this story, famously threatened to organize primary challengers to any Republican legislator who voted to raise taxes – just as Grover Norquist and the Club for Growth have been doing nationwide.

Now, the damage is clear. Latinos comprise 37.6 percent of California’s population, and years of demonization at the hands of Republicans have compelled millions of them to register and vote. Democrats enjoy a 52-27 majority in the Assembly, and a 21-17 majority in the Senate. From United States Senator to Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General, every single major statewide office is occupied by a Democrat. Meanwhile, the latest presidential polling has Obama up on Romney among Latinos by a staggering 57-15 percent.

Can California’s Republicans do anything to end their time in the wilderness? That’s the question I put to Jennifer Kerns, a spokesperson for the state Republican Party. Kerns is paid to be upbeat, and she earned every penny during our conversation. Since the Democrats almost exclusively run the state, she says, Republicans plan to highlight their myriad failures in controlling the budget and getting the economy up and running again. In Latino-heavy areas such as the Central Valley, unemployment is catastrophic, and the Democrats have no one but themselves to blame. "People are starting to wake up to the fact that the Democrats’ policies are really starting to affect them," Kerns says. "They’re getting no relief from Sacramento, no relief from the Democrats, and no relief from [Democratic governor] Jerry Brown."

Kerns highlighted the public employee unions and the teachers union, two key Democratic constituents whose pension plans bleed California’s coffers dry and who are notoriously unaccountable. Latino parents, in particular, are incensed by how the public schools are failing them. And she’s certainly got a point.

"When you look at the statewide results in California, you see people who don’t identify as Republicans, because that’s not seen as cool," Kerns says. Nevertheless, she insists, "I think we’re turning a corner in California."

Tom Campbell, the former GOP congressman from Silicon Valley, has what he thinks is a better idea. For years, the conservative activists who dominate the primary election have nominated candidates so extreme that they will never win the general election. But stating this Tuesday, California will implement a new election process, known as "Top Two." Instead of closed primaries, in which only registered Republicans or Democrats could vote for a candidate in their respective party, anyone can vote for any candidate. The top two candidates would then run in the November election. This reform could well break the hold that party activists have on their own primary system, allowing a more moderate Republican candidate to emerge.

"The purpose was to break the [ideological] litmus test," Campbell says. "To break the stranglehold on a number of certain issues and nominate thoughtful candidates whose views might be complex."

A Top Two election is certainly an interesting idea. But if this is the best that Republicans can hope for, then they can’t hope for much. The party’s leaders have spent a generation indulging in the politics of white suburban resentment, insulting Latinos, blacks, homosexuals, and any straight white or Asian professional who calls one a friend. An electoral gimmick won’t erase that overnight. California’s vanishing Republicans have simply been left behind, to dream of their mythical past and grumble about how things aren’t the way they used to be, while the state moves on without them.

Which brings us back to the bigger political picture. National Republican leaders contemplating the West Coast should be very worried, because just as Latinos and urban professionals became the most important demographic groups in California, so will they, in the years ahead, across wide swathes of United States.

Last month, for the first time ever, children from racial and ethnic minoritites made up more than half of all births in the U.S. Native-born Latinos comprise 16.3 percent of the national population, according to the Census, and the percentage of foreign-born residents has risen to 12.7. For the first time in the nation's history, more than 30 percent of Americans hold college degrees, and in the next few years, most of these will be women. As young, college educated professionals settle in areas like the Research Triangle and Denver, they’re changing the balance of power, and turning the formerly rock solid Red States of Colorado, North Carolina, and Virginia a decidedly different color. Once again, the rest of the country is following California’s lead, becoming more diverse, more educated, more cosmopolitan, and younger.

Tens of millions of white, working-class, aging men out there know it, and they’re anxious. During the recent, particularly ugly South Carolina primary, Mitt Romney himself was booed at one debate, after one questioner pointed out that his family came here from Mexico. In states throughout the South, Southwest, and Midwest, conservative politicians have exploited this anxiety to push demagogic laws and win elections. Jan Brewer, the allegedly conscious governor of Arizona, most famously won her post by championing the state’s new law that empowers police officers to demand proof of citizenship of almost anyone at any time. Newt Gingrich’s stock began to rise once he started calling for black children to be put to work as janitors in public schools. Once again, laws banning gay marriage have won in states such as North Carolina.

"What happened in California quite a while ago is now a strategy that’s been adopted nationwide," says Ruy Teixeira, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and the co-author of the noted book The Emerging Democratic Majority. "Republicans have said, 'Well, we don’t really need these people, and we think we can get by on white voters, particularly white working-class voters.'"

But just as they did in California, these racially and culturally inflammatory tactics will exact a price. Wedge issues like gay marriage or anti-immigrant laws may win a few election cycles in the last all-white corners of America, but the millions of Latinos and urban professionals that will eventually dominate the country’s politics will remember the last reactionary twitches of the Republican corpse. And they won’t be that eager to bring it back to life.

"That’s the California nightmare," Teixeira says. "What if, by the time Republicans realize they need to change their tone, it’s too late? What if they wind up with a bunch of these states? I think they have plenty of time to change their ways. But they could be digging themselves into a big hole."

Mitt Romney and his fellow Republicans face a considerably larger challenge than merely winning a presidential election. They must somehow stop their best friends and supporters from destroying their political future.

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