Former California governor Pete Wilson with his wife Gayle in 1995. During his tenure, Wilson promoted Proposition 187, which would have denied all public services to undocumented immigrants—a move that is credited with turning Latinos in the state against the GOP.
Over the past 15 years, California’s electorate has changed so dramatically and so quickly that Democrats have often won victories they weren’t even anticipating. In 1998, no one expected Gray Davis to win the governor’s office by 20 percentage points, and the tightly wound Davis, who had no life outside politics, was plainly bewildered by his own emotions during his victory speech on the night of the landslide. This week, no one expected the Democrats to win two-thirds of the seats in the state Assembly (they did expect to win that many in the state Senate, which they did), yet the Democrats won those seats going away. As California law requires a two-thirds vote in both legislative houses to raise any taxes, the Republicans have long used their just-over-one-third representation in those houses to block all tax increases, decimating the state’s schools, colleges, and parks in the process. Now, the Democrats have finally overcome that hurdle—and have become the first party with two-thirds representation in both houses since 1933.
Their victories Tuesday in legislative races were just the most surprising of a string of successes. Democrats also appear to have picked up four congressional seats, extending their margin in the state’s 53-members congressional delegation to a 38-to-15 lead over the Republicans. President Barack Obama and Senator Dianne Feinstein each won re-election by roughly 20 percentage points, and the party prevailed in its main initiative battles—for Governor Jerry Brown’s Proposition 30, which levies tax increases on the rich to forestall further cuts to the state’s schools, and against Proposition 32, which would have curtailed unions’ ability to fund their election-season campaigns. Proposition 30 passed by an 8-point margin; Proposition 32 failed by a 12-point margin.
The Democrats’ domination of America’s mega-state is now nearly total. All the statewide elected officials are Democrats; the federal and state legislative delegations are overwhelmingly Democratic; all the state’s major cities have Democratic mayors (retiring Democratic congressman Bob Filner wrested San Diego from Republican hands on Tuesday). It almost requires a feat of memory to recall that California was the political home of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and that during Reagan’s tenure was thought of as one of the states that anchored the GOP’s national electoral majority.
What changed the state, of course, was immigration—the wave of Mexican migrants who began to come north for work during the peso crisis of the 1980s and continued to come in the 1990s as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) made traditional Mexican agriculture uncompetitive; the refugees from violence in Central America; the immigrants from a host of East Asian nations. Additionally, Southern California aerospace manufacturing—the largest industry in the region’s economy—was decimated by the end of the Cold War, and more than a million whites, disproportionately from that industry, left the state in the first half of the ‘90s, just as immigration from south of the border was peaking.
It took a couple of decades before these changes were registered in the state’s electorate, but the latest election figures are little short of stunning. According to the networks’ exit poll of Tuesday’s election, the state’s share of Latino voters rose from 18 percent to 22 percent between 2008 and 2012, while the share of Asian voters nearly doubled, from 6 percent to 11 percent, between those two elections. For the past decade, California has been a state with a minority-white population, but it’s close to becoming a state with a minority-white electorate. This year, the white share of state voters, which stood at 65 percent in 2004 and 63 percent in 2008, fell to just 55 percent.
That’s only half the story of California’s transformation, though. The other half is what one party did to attract support from these new Californians and what the other party did to repel it.
California’s transformation goes back to 1994, when Governor Pete Wilson, a Republican running behind in his re-election campaign, began to promote a ballot measure, Proposition 187, which would have denied all public services—including even the right to attend public schools—to undocumented immigrants and their undocumented children. He ran ads on television showing shadowy figures running across the highway, while the narrator intoned, “They keep coming.” Wilson rode this nativist wave to victory for both the ballot measure and himself, but it was the most pyrrhic victory in modern American political history. A court soon struck down most of 187’s provisions. The state’s Latinos turned with vengeance against the California Republican Party. And, just as the ad predicted, they kept coming—into the Democratic ranks.
One week before the 1994 election, the spontaneous anti-187 demonstrations of Latino youngsters came together in a massive planned march in downtown Los Angeles, which a number of not-quite-so-young Latino labor leaders coordinated. Two of those leaders, Miguel Contreras, then the political director (and soon to become the leader) of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor (the umbrella AFL-CIO organization for Los Angeles), and Eliseo Medina, then a local official of the Service Employees International Union (and now the secretary-treasurer of the national union), saw the potential to build an alliance between the newly Latino-ized Southern California labor movement and the politically aroused Latino immigrant community. Each began highly effective programs to naturalize, register and get to the polls thousands of these Southern California newcomers. By 1998, they had flipped the long-Republican congressional and legislative districts of suburban Los Angeles into the Democratic column. The efforts of both the AFL-CIO and SEIU have continued to this day, turning a once-purple state steadily bluer.
Throughout this period, the response of the Republican Party to this great transformation was even more remarkable: ignore the very fact of its existence, save to continue the nativist, anti-immigrant stance pioneered by Wilson. The state had its own talk-show versions of Rush Limbaugh—most notably, Los Angeles’s Ken and Bob Show—which regularly reviled immigrants and encouraged listeners to make sure their Republican legislators favored deporting immigrants. The districts that Republicans represented in both Washington and Sacramento had been carved to be both white and Republican; the only challenges that GOP legislators feared were challenges from the right in primaries. For years, Republican primary voters ensured that their statewide candidates adhered to proto-Tea Party politics, ensuring that all of them lost. (The election of the relatively moderate Arnold Schwarzenegger to the governor’s office was only possible because he ran in the recall election of Gray Davis, a process in which there was no partisan primary.) By 2010, even independently wealthy business candidates Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina, who hailed from the ostensibly more moderate Silicon-Valley-CEO-wing of the GOP but who had to campaign to the right to win their primaries, lost their gubernatorial and senatorial bids, respectively, to Democratic opponents Jerry Brown and Barbara Boxer by double-digit margins, though they massively outspent them.
The GOP’s estrangement of the new electorate wasn’t just confined to its position on immigrants. As the number of Latino and Asian voters continued to rise, Republicans in the legislature refused to approve any new taxes to help the state’s overburdened schools, even as polling showed that Latinos and Asians supported increasing taxes to fund schools at rates as high if not higher than African Americans. As the state’s electorate also grew younger—the share of voters age 18 through 29 went from 20 percent to 27 percent between 2008 and 2012—the GOP refused to consider tax increases on the wealthy that could have forestalled tuition increases at the University of California and the state and community colleges. Republicans also remained staunchly opposed to gay marriage even as polls showed Californians, particularly younger Californians, moving to support it.
As if all this weren’t damaging enough for the state’s GOP, two recent changes to the state’s election process turned out to disadvantage the Republicans even more. First, state voters had enacted by initiative a new decennial redistricting process, taking the line-drawing out of the hands of the legislature—which had demonstrated a keen interests during previous redistrictings in protecting all incumbents—and entrusting it instead to a nonpartisan commission. The new districts in which congressional representatives and legislators competed this week weren’t designed to ensure their survival. And with the Latino and Asian share of the electorate continuing to rise, they all but guaranteed that the Democrats would enlarge their delegations at Republicans’ expense.
Second, this year the Democratic legislature and Governor Brown enacted online voter registration. In the past few months, 1.4 million Californians, disproportionately young and Latino, registered to vote, more than half of them online. By the time registration was completed a couple of weeks ago, the Republicans’ share of the state’s voters, which had been declining steadily for years, fell beneath 30 percent for the first time since the state started measuring.
During the past month, Brown campaigned across the state’s dozens of public colleges and universities to turn out the vote supporting his tax-hike measure. His get-out-the-vote efforts were more than matched by the state’s unions. This week marked the third time since 1998 that they were confronted with a ballot measure that would make it more difficult for them to spend their resources on election campaigns. In 1998, they defeated the first such measure by 6.5 percent; in 2005, they defeated another by 7 percent; and this year, as noted, they beat it by 12 percent. But each campaign compelled them to spend tens of millions of dollars—this year, more than $50 million—to prevail. Indeed, it’s plausible that the right puts these measures on the ballot every few years to divert union funds away from other important national and local races. But this year, the right’s plan—if this was its plan—backfired. The unions’ voter-mobilization campaign was surely partly responsible for the Democrats’ successes in congressional and legislative races, much as the unions’ successful 1958 campaign to defeat a right-to-work initiative helped sweep Democrat Pat Brown into the governor’s office and gave the Democrats control of the legislature for the first time in decades.
The unions were particularly effective in mobilizing Latino voters, in part through SEIU’s Mi Familia Vota program, chaired by Medina, which employed hundreds of fulltime organizers that got Latinos to the polls. The program was particularly effective in that part of California where Republicans still held power—Inland California. With the opportunity created by the newly recarved districts, Democrat Raul Ruiz ousted GOP Representative Mary Bono Mack in Riverside County, and Democrat Mark Takano won in a new Riverside County district as well. On the same day, Mack’s husband was busy losing the Florida senatorial contest to incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson. That has to be some kind of historic first. Indeed, this week’s election reveals that the labor-Latino alliance, which dominates politics in Greater Los Angeles, now is extending its reach to San Bernardino, Riverside, Orange, Ventura, and San Diego counties as well. That is, deep into historically Republican terrain.
The success of the labor/Latino/Democratic operation and the abysmal failure of the Republicans to gain any significant support among minority and younger Californians is clear from the exit polling. Obama carried the 18-through-29 vote by a margin of 71 percent to 29 percent; he carried the Latino vote by 72 percent to 27 percent; he carried the Asian vote by an astonishing gap of 79 percent to 21 percent. Indeed, Obama won 73 percent of the Asian vote nationally—two points higher than his support among Latinos. With the Asian share of the national electorate at 3 percent, that’s easy for the national press to miss, but in California, where it’s now at 11 percent, that’s a decisive margin in any election. It also demonstrates that the Republicans’ problem runs deeper than mere opposition to immigration, since the number of undocumented Asian immigrants is small. It suggests that for Asians, no less than for Latinos and blacks, the Republicans are viewed as a white man’s party. It also suggests that Republican opposition to education spending, increasing Pell grants and the like, may not be the best way to win a growing voting bloc that places such a high premium on education.
The racial and political recomposition of the California electorate is now reflected in the racial and political recomposition of the state’s elected officials. If Indian American Ami Bera holds his lead over Republican Representative Dan Lungern in a Sacramento-area congressional district, the 38 California Democrats in the next Congress will include five Asian Americans and nine Latinos, as well as three African Americans. The 15-member Republican delegation will include no minorities—and, astonishingly, no women. Of the 38 Democrats, 18 are women. Not surprisingly, Obama carried women voters in California by a margin of 64 percent to 34 percent.
Republicans can’t argue that all these changes have taken them unawares. The increase in the minority share of the electorate and its tilt toward the Democrats has been plain for all to see since the day after the 1998 elections, 14 years ago. For their part, however, Republicans have persisted in the anti-government, anti-minority politics that they embraced when they helped spawn the Goldwater movement of the early 1960s. Embedded in the cocoon of right-wing districts, swaddled in their prejudice by right-wing media, they continue to cling rigidly to beliefs that are about as germane to the issues the state confronts as the platform of the Prohibition Party. Their electoral prospects don’t look notably brighter than the Prohibitionists’, either.
In theory, Republicans around the nation, brooding over their defeats, could learn some things from their California brethren’s descent into oblivion. Whether the lesson they take to heart is how to avoid the Golden State’s GOP’s fate or how to replicate it remains to be seen.