It is perhaps difficult to remember that California was largely a reliable Republican state. From the 1952 election of Dwight Eisenhower until the 1992 election where California went for Bill Clinton, the state went for the Republicans in 9 of 10 presidential elections.
Only in Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 landslide did California go blue during that period. Now, some of those years it was close, like 1968 where Richard Nixon won by 3, Ford in 1976 won by 2 and George HW Bush in 1988 won by 4. Moreover, there was a Californian (Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan) on the ballot as President or Vice President 7 of those 10 years.
From 1966 until 1998, only one Democrat won the governorship. Some guy named Jerry Brown.
But something changed in California. The year was 1994. Incumbent Republican Pete Wilson was in trouble, the economy was bad and the state was dysfunctional. But 1994 wasn’t a normal year – it would be a year of sweeping crime and fears of illegal immigration.
Governor Wilson backed Proposition 187, dubbed “save our state,” that would have established a “state-run citizenship screening system” and prohibited “illegal aliens from using health care, public education, and other social services in the U.S. State of California.”
The measure was overwhelmingly approved by the voters, but there were legal challenges and the courts held that its provisions were unconstitutional. In 1999, Governor Gray Davis would halt appeals.
Not only did Prop 187 pass, but so did the three strikes initiative, and Governor Wilson was easily reelected. That year, Republicans swept the state offices, except Controller and Superintendent of Public Instruction. They took over control of the assembly by a 41-39 margin for the first time in decades (though they never had control, as Speaker Willie Brown outmaneuvered them several times).
Even Senator Dianne Feinstein narrowly held onto her seat against the self-supported candidacy of Michael Huffington.
However, the decision by Pete Wilson to embrace Prop 187 would doom the state for the Republican Party, for most of the next twenty years and likely beyond. I will never forget talking to a state union official prior to the 1996 elections telling me that Democrats could not count to 41 (meaning they did not see how they could retake the assembly).
But in the 1996 elections, Democrats took a number of marginal seats to reclaim their control of the assembly. What stunned observers was the strength of the Latino vote, and also the homogeneity of it.
Prior to 1996, Hispanics were largely split on party, unlike African-Americans. But since 1996 in California, Hispanics have gone for Democrats in huge numbers. Since then, the Democrats have had a stranglehold on the state.
While the rest of the nation turned to the Republicans in 2010, California was becoming bluer. Jerry Brown was elected to his second go-around as governor. Democrats controlled all of the constitutional offices. Democrats control both senate seats and have since 1992.
In this past election, President Barack Obama would win by over 20 points, but the remarkable thing is that both houses of the legislature appear to have two-thirds majorities of Democrats. This week, Dan Lungren and Brian Bilbray, incumbent Republicans, lost, meaning that Democrats gained five seats in Congress and now control 38 of 53 districts in California.
What turned California from a state that was reliably Republican to nearly as blue as they come was the Hispanic vote. We started seeing signs of this as early as 1992, but 1996 was the watershed year and Prop 187 was the galvanizing force.
What happened in California is happening nationally. Hispanic voters are the fastest growing bloc of voters in the country and they went by more than 70% for the Democrats.
In states like Colorado, Nevada, and Florida, the Latino community made up 14-18 percent of the vote, delivering wins for President Obama. New Mexico is now a solid Democratic state, having gone for the Democrats every year since 1992, except in 2004.
In fact, George W. Bush received 44% of the Latino vote in 2004, helping him to hold off John Kerry in some crucial states.
But in the last two elections, Hispanics have become far more Democratic. Everyone recognizes that Mitt Romney made an error when he advocated for self-deportation. Sheriff Arpaio has helped to galvanize Latinos fearful of Republicans targeting their populations, in their zest to control the influx of Mexican immigrants (that ironically has slowed with the economic downturn in this country).
Listen to hardcore conservative analysts like Sean Hannity and Charles Krauthammer, and the solution is easy – they have become advocates of immigration reform, which they see as simple as border fence plus amnesty.
Wrote Mr. Krauthammer last week: “I’ve always been of the ‘enforcement first’ school, with the subsequent promise of legalization. I still think it’s the better policy. But many Hispanics fear that there will be nothing beyond enforcement. So, promise amnesty right up front. Secure the border with guaranteed legalization to follow on the day the four border-state governors affirm that illegal immigration has slowed to a trickle.”
His prescription is simple: “Imagine Marco Rubio advancing such a policy on the road to 2016. It would transform the landscape. He’d win the Hispanic vote. Yes, win it. A problem fixable with a single policy initiative is not structural. It is solvable.”
Imagine that, the Republicans can fix their minority bleeding through a simple immigration policy.
Republicans assume that the Latino problem is strictly on the immigration issue. They believe that Latinos are waiting to become Republicans because of social issues. But I think they are deeply flawed in their thinking.
Look no further than Maryland, where a majority of Latino voters supported gay marriage.
Exit polls show that Latinos are much more likely to favor government intervention into the economy than the Republican Party.
As one observer put it, “The nice thing about this view is that it’s not racist. It envisions Hispanics as Tea Partiers with visa problems. But it’s wrong.”
But also, Republicans do not seem to understand that the immigration issue is not the determinative issue – the problem many Latinos have with Republicans is that they believe that Republicans do not like them and that their policies will not just go after undocumented workers, but all Latinos.
In short, if the Republicans think that immigration reform is a quick fix to stop the bleeding, I think they are misreading the data.
A Pew Research Poll discovered that Hispanics are not as conservative on cultural issues as Republicans seem to want to believe.
More than half now support same-sex marriage with only one-third opposed. At one point, polling showed Latinos to be more anti-abortion than their counterparts, but that gap has diminished with second and third generation Latinos, who are more pro-choice than their immigrant parents and grandparents.
2012 exit polls actually showed Hispanics to be more supportive of keeping abortion legal than other Americans.
The immigration issue does not dominate their focus, either. Sure when a state passed AB 1070 or Prop 187, it rallies the fears of Latinos that they will be targeted, but polling from PEW showed their top concern, 60 percent, was economy followed by health care, the deficit, and foreign policy.
So the real reason that Latinos are heavily Democratic is not immigration, but economics. While only 41 percent of the country, according to a Pew Research Poll, wanted a bigger government that provides more services, a whopping 75 percent of Hispanics do.
As former California Speaker Fabian Nuñez wrote, “While pundits and political operatives have been quick to try and diagnose the problem for Republicans, their prescriptions are all wrong. Yes, Republicans have a crisis with Latino voters. But re-packaging and re-communicating their ideas won’t turn it around. The Republican Party doesn’t face a political challenge; it faces a policy challenge. It doesn’t need new ideas about marketing; it needs new ideas.”
There are some Republicans that actually recognize this reality.
“The white establishment is now the minority,” Bill O’Reilly, the FOX News commentator, proclaimed on election night. “And the voters, many of them, feel that the economic system is stacked against them, and they want stuff. You are going to see a tremendous Hispanic vote for President Obama … People feel that they are entitled to things.”
But you do not have to go to Bill O’Reilly for proof, just go to Mitt Romney.
We had Mitt Romney’s early comment about the 47 percent of voters who will never side with him, and while he tried to backtrack from that comment, his comment this week about “gifts” shows that he meant what he said.
The NY Times reported this week, that in a conference call with fundraisers and donors to his campaign, Mr. Romney said Wednesday afternoon that the president had followed the “old playbook” of using targeted initiatives to woo specific interest groups – “especially the African-American community, the Hispanic community and young people.”
“In each case, they were very generous in what they gave to those groups,” Mr. Romney said.
The Republican Party understands the stakes. They saw what has happened in California, and to a lesser extent in New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada and Florida, and they fear the same happening in Arizona and Texas.
As Fabian Nuñez put it: “Republicans need to get real. They face years of hard work in trying to rebuild a message and a policy that can speak to Latinos. No shortcuts exist. No easy road beckons. Putting hope in Florida Senator Marco Rubio as the party standard-bearer will do little to solve the problem unless Republicans change their policies — and change them quickly.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting