Politics & Policy

Why the GOP Has Declined in California

(Mike Blake/Reuters)
It’s not because the party enraged Latino voters.

Talk to almost any Californians (that is, to any who’ve been in the state since before the ’90s) and they’ll tell a simple story of conservative decline. A crucial 1994 ballot initiative that attempted to enact stricter restrictions on illegal immigrants, Proposition 187, was pushed by a radicalizing GOP in a diversifying California. This initiative was a draconian effort to lash out against minorities’ political gains, and it especially enraged and energized Latinos, long a sleeping giant in California politics. In short, overreach tinged with racism caused Republicans to go the way of the grizzly on the state flag: extinct.

This story is convenient: It’s simple and intuitive, serving the ends of both liberals and conservatives. The Left gets to idealize itself as the party of diversity and tolerance, battling against a racist, reactionary Right. Republican operatives are able to trot out the excuse of losers the world over: inevitability, blaming “demographic destiny” and mistakes made in the past for the wilderness the party finds itself in.

But like most convenient narratives, it’s not quite true. The fight over Prop. 187, while undeniably and justifiably angering many Latino voters, was not a turning point for the Latino vote in the Golden State.

Telling the real story should begin, however, with Prop. 187. Called “Save Our State” and organized by a group of extreme anti-immigrant activists, it was irredeemably draconian, banning all non-emergency government services for illegal immigrants and their children. Hundreds of thousands of children would have been expelled from school, and doctors would have been required to report patients whom they suspected of being in the state illegally.

Save Our State did not exactly come out of nowhere, however. In the early 1990s, California was consumed by racial turmoil, much of it over illegal immigration. In 1993, the rate of illegal immigration to the United States was three times as great as the rate of legal immigration; around a million illegal immigrants lived in Los Angeles alone. San Diegans enraged at the frequent sight of undocumented immigrants sprinting through their streets organized the Light Up the Border event, lining up 500 cars facing the border to illuminate illegal crossings. Colonies of unaccompanied immigrant children sprouted up under freeways, becoming sites of drug abuse and, in San Diego’s Balboa Park, child prostitution. Toudu (smuggled) immigrants from China often fell into indentured servitude to pay off passage fees or, worse, became victims of the sex trade.

In the words of the state’s greatest chronicler, Kevin Starr, Californians in the ’90s “grew increasingly hostile and oblivious to each other.” Whites often moved north, either to Antelope Valley, north of Los Angeles, or to Sacramento and the sparsely populated top of the state. California’s great experiment in multiculturalism and diversity looked like it might collapse under its own weight.

Californians across the political spectrum were concerned about this growing sense of alienation and lack of control. A Los Angeles Times poll revealed that 86 percent of Californians thought that illegal immigration had become a moderate to major problem in the state. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein each proposed to send the National Guard to the border. (By contrast, the state’s current Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, pointedly removed the National Guard from the state’s southern border in 2019.) Feinstein also wanted to enlarge the Border Patrol and prioritize the deportation of illegal immigrants who had committed crimes. And in a foretaste of the heated immigration politics we have today, Pat Buchanan campaigned in the state with the proposal to dig a trench along the California–Mexico border.

It was in this atmosphere of bipartisan concern, if not panic, that Governor Pete Wilson began his 1994 reelection campaign. Facing a tough challenge from Democratic candidate Kathleen Brown, Wilson seized on Prop. 187 as a way to separate Brown and her liberal base from the rest of the state’s voters.

If his prior career was any indicator, Wilson could hardly be accused of being anti-immigrant. As a senator, he had helped pass the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act and had pushed for amnesty for a million farm workers. Mexican Americans also held high positions in his administration, and those who knew Wilson personally could attest to his lack of personal prejudice.

Wilson, however, was also a leader in the fight against illegal immigration. He once dramatically sued the federal government for $10 billion for the costs of illegal immigration. He wanted to end birthright citizenship for the children of illegal aliens and pushed for the withdrawal of welfare benefits from illegal immigrants.

Prop. 187, as outlined above, went even further than these proposals. It was radical, but not really outside California’s political mainstream at the time. While Brown refused to endorse it, Dianne Feinstein did not come out against it until October, and her Republican opponent, Michael Huffington, enthusiastically backed the measure.

The campaign was divisive and well publicized; Jack Kemp and William Bennett opposed Prop. 187 publicly. Less helpfully for the anti-187 side, the president of Mexico condemned it, and a 70,000-strong parade in Los Angeles on election eve saw many marchers waving Mexican flags. Kevin Starr writes that 187 opponents unwittingly confirmed the stereotype of “an irredentist intrusion in California, resistant to taking on an American identity.”

Prop. 187 won in a landslide, 59 to 41 percent. This actually outpaced Wilson’s own vote share (55 percent) and gathered 40 percent support from Democrats. And according to the California Political Review, it gathered significant support from minorities — 27 percent from Latinos and 52 percent from blacks and Asians. In fact, if one held political attitudes constant but factored in current, more diverse, demographics, the measure still would pass easily today.

But of course, Californians’ political attitudes have not held constant. Residents, by almost every conceivable measure, lean further left than they did in the 1990s. Republican registration has declined precipitously. Democrats hold a 29–11 edge in the state senate and a 61–18 lead in the house, have held both federal Senate seats since 1992, and currently send 39 Democrats to the House (out of 53 seats).

The received wisdom in explaining this shift is that Prop. 187 ruined any Republican chance at appealing to a diversifying California; Wilson’s short-term gain in winning another term was eviscerated by the party’s death as a political force in the state. Latinos, as a block, were alienated by the Republican party, granting Democrats an ironclad majority into the present.

And that’s the whole tale that explains how the state that produced Nixon and Reagan is now overwhelmingly blue.

But this story is also basically wrong, on a few different levels.

First, and most important, the evidence simply isn’t there to justify the conclusion that 1994 was a turning point for Latino voters in California. In a 2017 study, Iris Hui and David O. Sears found that previous research pinpointing 1994 as “critical election” was based on a few studies with insufficient sample sizes. The Latino vote had been solidly Democratic through the 1970s, shifted rightward under Reagan, and began returning left sometime during the first Bush presidency, from 1989 to 1993.

Furthermore, while Republican voter registration has declined since 1994 (from 37 to 25 percent), the percentage of registered Democrats has fallen as well (from 49 to 44 percent). The Democratic decline is not as steep as the Republican decline, but there has been no stampede of horrified voters into the arms of the Democratic party. Latinos have continued their slow, steady move leftward, and Prop. 187, however counterintuitively, barely made a ripple.

In a 2007 analysis, Hoover Institution fellows Morris P. Fiorina and Samuel Abrams found that growth in Latino Democratic voters contributed, on average, three percentage points to Democratic margins of victory. An important shift, but not by itself the makings of a landslide.

That eliminates the ideas of a Latino landslide and of a Democratic boom. And if there was only a mild increase in votes for the Left, it raises the question: Where did all the votes for the Right go? As it turns out, Texas.

Well, Texas, Nevada, and Arizona, among other states — basically, anywhere that’s cheaper than California. With the end of the Cold War, the massive defense-research complex centered in southern California began to pack up shop. This industry had been the state’s largest for decades, and it was a reliable source of middle-class Republican votes.

On top of that, California — a onetime magnet for working-class people, whether Italians and Irish during the Gold Rush, Okies headed to the Central Valley in the 1920s and ’30s, or post-war migrants riding waves of industrialization — has ceased to attract blue-collar labor. Since 1990, the state has experienced a net loss of 800,000 working-class people — 156,000 to Texas alone — because of California’s rising cost of living. A large portion (though not all) of these people were Reagan Democrats, the so-called white working class that the Republican party has come to rely on.

With its middle class hollowed out, California has transitioned to an economy with incredibly high levels of income inequality — think of the difference in income between an Uber driver and an Uber product supervisor. The income gap helps tilt the state’s demographics in favor of Democrats, because the Democratic party is increasingly a top-bottom coalition composed of the poor and the upper-middle and upper classes. The more conservative professionals of the Cold War era, too, are being replaced by employment sectors more favorable to Democrats. Rising industries such as tech and entertainment pay well and skew left, and the dense urban centers where they’re located attract young, college-educated voters who form an increasingly important part of the Democratic coalition.

The final nail in the coffin for the California GOP is also its biggest missed opportunity: the growing independent vote. The percentage of voters who decline to register with a party has grown steadily, accelerated by the adoption of open primaries in 1996. Self-described independent voters were a quarter of all California voters in 2018. Independents have been a significant part of California’s electoral mix since the 1970s, and they account for the vast majority of the growth in registered voters since 1992.

Traditionally, the GOP won statewide victories in California by turning out their base and, critically, winning the independent vote. The Republican party has never enjoyed a registration advantage in the state, even during the heady days of George Deukmejian, Nixon, and Reagan (part of the reason the state legislature has always been a Democratic stomping ground). But independent voters were amenable to the California GOP’s focus on bread-and-butter issues, such as taxes and home prices. And while the state has trended blue demographically for decades, there are still plenty of Californians who live in exactly the kind of middle-class suburbs these voters call home.

Independents, however, now lean heavily Democratic among both likely and infrequent voters — 42 percent of likely independent voters lean Democratic, while 29 percent lean Republican; 42 percent of infrequent independent voters lean Democratic, while 23 percent lean Republican. A significant portion of independents — 29 percent of likely independent voters and 34 percent of infrequent independent voters — say they lean toward neither party. But ideological self-identification presents a less-than-blue picture. Californians are actually split more or less evenly among self-identified liberals, moderates, and conservatives.

The largest source of new voters appears to be fertile ground for the California GOP. A majority of independent voters are either hostile or apathetic to the Democratic party, and California at least has a broad middle, with two-thirds identifying as moderate or conservative. Roughly a quarter of the state’s independents live in Los Angeles County, which was generally competitive in statewide elections through the ’90s. The GOP has failed to win those voters.

In recent years, the party’s struggles are due in large part to President Trump. He is enormously unpopular in the state, with a 33 percent approval rating, and his signature issue — controlling immigration — does not fly with Golden State voters. In fact, 88 percent of Democrats and 71 percent of independents (as well as 45 percent of Republicans) perceive immigration to be a benefit to the state. The DACA program enjoys 85 percent support statewide. The GOP lost several traditionally Republican seats, and the gubernatorial race by 24 points, in 2018. When you’ve lost Orange County, you’ve smacked right against the rock bottom.

While Trump has been a problem for the state GOP only since the 2016 elections, he reflects an evolution in the Republican party nationally that’s slowly killed the GOP in the state. As governors, Reagan, Duekmejian, and Wilson all focused on cutting taxes and spending, and on law-and-order issues. But the national party’s decades-long shift away from the relative libertarianism of Goldwater and early Reagan and toward more “culture war”–oriented politics has alienated the state GOP from the moderate suburban homeowner that it relied on (not to mention that these voters are diminished numerically).

The California GOP, then, is a loser in the Republican shift away from suburban voters and towards rural and Rust Belt voters. This hasn’t exactly hurt the party nationally, as 2016 saw historic gains for Republicans in the Senate and the creation of the most conservative Supreme Court in the modern era, serving as a rebuke to the much-derided 2012 “autopsy,” which argued that the GOP needed to pass immigration reform, among other things. But Trump’s successes came from essentially doubling down on a shrinking electoral group, the now-legendary white working class.

And if the 2016 results are anything to go by, hairs-breadth victories in the Rust Belt may come at the price of the Sun Belt. Hillary Clinton, the least popular Democratic candidate in recent memory, was competitive in Arizona and won Nevada; Texas, too, is not becoming any redder (to round out the “belt” analyses, the Bible Belt will almost certainly remain a Republican stronghold).

Becoming a battleground state in presidential elections again might be aiming too high for California’s GOP, however. But capturing merely a third of the seats in the state’s congressional delegation would increase the number of California Republicans in the House from seven to 17. A ten-seat gain is not nothing.

California has long been something of a world unto itself politically — being the world’s fifth-largest economy will do that– and if the GOP wants to survive in the state, it will have to enter into that world. That means distancing itself from Trump, which may be an impossibly tall order and also unpopular among the rank-and-file. It also means recruiting candidates and operatives who reflect the state’s ethnic diversity, which it is doing. Jessica Patterson, a Latina, was recently elected chair of the state party. She defeated Travis Allen, a firebrand who argued for doubling down on conservatism and support for Trump as a way for the party to revive itself.

Patterson was correct when, at the state convention in February, she declared, “There are too few of us for us to try and push people out in one direction or the other.” Considering that I am writing for National Review, I say this with fear and trembling, but the right course for conservatives in California is to be less conservative, at least on certain issues. And it certainly means bucking the trends in other parts of the country. What’s right for Ohio or Michigan may not be right for California.

Far more important than presidential elections and house majorities, however, is the actual governance of the largest state in the Union. The GOP’s decline has transformed California, in effect, into a one-party state. The results have not been good. California has the nation’s highest poverty rate and some of the highest levels of income inequality. Housing, hamstrung by excessive environmental regulation and mountains of red tape that rival the Sierra Nevada, is in such short supply that the median rent in San Francisco is $3,800 a month. Massive pension funds for powerful unions threaten the state’s financial security. The most powerful of these unions, the California Teachers’ Association, consistently blocks the efforts of education reformers; California’s schools rank 47th in the country. Important infrastructure, such as highways and reservoirs, is neglected in favor of progressive boondoggles like the finally killed-off Hyperloop high-speed rail line. Homelessness is a full-blown crisis, as overly permissive laws and misdirected public funds attract thousands of people to the streets of San Francisco, Oakland, and Los Angeles. Actually, “not good” is an understatement. “Disaster” seems a more fitting description.

A strengthened opposition, fiscally responsible and not beholden to progressive special interests, could do a lot of good for the people of the state. For decades, the GOP could take pride in helping to create and enable the “California Dream”: an open, dynamic economy, middle-class jobs, affordable living in the nation’s most beautiful state. California was the dream inside the American Dream. To paraphrase Republican president and Stanford alum Herbert Hoover, the post-war “chicken in every pot” was a pool in every backyard.

California could be this again, but it needs to get rid of convenient myths about its past. No, angering Latinos is not a good idea in a state that is 40 percent Hispanic. No, Prop. 187 did not forever doom the GOP. Actual political choices, unrelated to fraught ethnic politics, did that.

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James P. Sutton is an editorial intern at National Review and a junior at Swarthmore College.

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