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Will Boehner and Company Allow National Republican Party to Go The Way of California GOP?

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When House Republicans hold their closed-door internal meeting on immigration this Wednesday, members of Congress would be wise to ask Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) to recount the cautionary tale of the Republican Party’s demise in his home state of California.

In 1994 Governor Pete Wilson (R-CA) pushed through the infamous anti-immigrant Proposition 187 and ignited a political backlash from the state’s changing electorate.  Latino and Asian immigrants became citizens in record numbers and transformed the state politically.  As a result, the California Republican Party – once the launching pad of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan – is no longer competitive statewide. Its share of Republican congressional districts declined from 48% to 28% and their representation in the state legislature is tiny.

With the national Republican Party facing a moment of truth this year on immigration – go hard line or share credit for workable reform – it’s worth reviewing what’s happened in California since the approval of Proposition 187, the state anti-immigrant ballot initiative championed by Pete Wilson, in 1994:

  • California GOP Loses Influence in Congress & State LegislatureAfter the 1994 elections, California’s congressional delegation consisted of 27 House Democrats and 25 House Republicans, along with two Democratic Senators.  After the 2012 elections, the state’s congressional delegation consisted of 38 House Democrats and only 15 House Republicans, along with two Democratic Senators.  The state legislature hasn’t been any kinder to California Republicans – as a recent McClatchy News article highlighted, “In November, Republicans in Sacramento ceded a supermajority to Democrats in both houses of the California Legislature for the first time since 1883.  At the same time, the number of Republicans in the state’s 53-member House delegation dropped to 15, their lowest share since 1936.”  Specifically, while the state legislature was divided by 60 Democrats to 58 Republicans in 1994, in 2012 the polarization in the Assembly and state Senate grew to a combined 80 Democrats versus just 36 Republicans.
  • Electoral Disasters for CA Republicans Since 1994: As political pundit Charlie Cook recently wrote, before Prop 187, in 1994 “the GOP carried California in nine of 12 post-World War II presidential elections, including six in a row from 1968 through 1988…Since Prop 187, Republican presidential candidates have lost California in all five elections.”  Cook also highlighted that in “16 California races for the U.S. Senate pre-Prop 187, Republicans and Democrats each won eight times. One Republican win occurred during President Johnson’s landslide victory over GOP Sen. Barry Goldwater in 1964. Since 1994, Republicans have lost six Senate elections in a row.”  Similarly, the Republican strength in gubernatorial and lieutenant governor races prior to 1994 have been reversed, with Democrats now having a stronghold on statewide elections.
  • Meg Whitman: The Dangers of Embracing a Hardline Immigration Stance in the Primary: In 2010, Meg Whitman’s hypocrisy on the immigration issue marked the turning point in her losing campaign for California’s governor and offered a case study of the dangers of letting Republican primary fears doom general election chances.  Similar to Mitt Romney’s disastrous tack right on immigration during the primary season of the 2012 presidential race, Whitman attempted to fend off a challenge from the right from Steve Poizner by embracing a hardline immigration stance during the primary.  Whitman later acknowledged that her party needs to change its rhetoric on immigration, stating “the immigration discussion, the rhetoric the Republican Party uses, is not helpful; it’s not helpful in a state with the Latino population we have…We as a party are going to have to make some changes, how we think about immigration, and how we talk about immigration.”  Instead of embracing an immigration position that helped her fight for Latino voters in 2010, Whitman lost the Latino vote by 86% to 13%, which cost her the election.
  • The Electorate Catches Up with Anti-immigrant House Republicans from California in 2012:  In 1994, California’s electorate was 78% white, 9% Latino, 7% African-American, and 6% Asian-American.  By 2012, the state’s electorate was just 55% white, while Latinos comprised 23%, Asian-Americans 12%, and African-Americans 10% of voters.  This rapid demographic change has been spurred both by population growth and the increased political engagement of the state’s changed demographics largely as a result of Prop. 187.  In 2012, Latino voters throughout California preferred Democrats over Republicans in 2012 congressional races by an overwhelming 80%-20% margin, according to election-eve polling of Latino voters in California conducted by Latino Decisions.  Anti-immigrant Republicans in California who did not keep pace with the changing demographics of their district either retired, such as Rep. Elton Gallegly, or were retired, as happened to anti-immigrant leader Rep. Brian Bilbray, as well as Rep. Bono Mack and Rep. Dan Lungren in 2012.
  • Incentives for Current House Republicans from CA to Embrace Immigration Reform: Now, the Republicans remaining in the state’s congressional delegation face growing Latino and Asian-American communities in their districts and are under pressure to deliver on immigration reform.  Current Republican House Members from California with particularly sizeable Latino voting populations include Jeff Denham (CA-10), David Valadao (CA-21), Gary Miller (CA-31), Buck McKeon (CA-25), and Devin Nunes (CA-22), as well as Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (CA-23).  Like the national Republican Party as a whole, it’s in these Members’ best political interests to work to pass real immigration reform.