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California’s 2012 Elections – A Win for Immigrant Champions & A Cautionary Tale for the National GOP

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In America’s Voice “Races to Watch for Supporters of Immigration Reform,” Four of Five CA Republicans Lost 

Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-CA) has long been a leading anti-immigrant Member of Congress.  Rep. Bilbray currently chairs the extremist House Immigration Reform Caucus and is a former lobbyist for the Federation for Immigration Reform (FAIR), which the Southern Poverty Law Center designates as a hate group.  Yet after California redrew its congressional districts last year to reflect continued demographic change, Rep. Bilbray lost to Democrat Scott Peters in the redistricted California 52nd District – an encapsulation of the California Republican Party’s current problems, and a potential harbinger of things to come for the national GOP.  As a result, the anti-immigrant movement lost a key champion in Congress and Bilbray became one of several cautionary tales about the changing nature of immigration politics to emanate from California in 2012.

Like many districts in California, Latino and Asian-American voters comprised more than one-fifth of the eligible voters in the 52nd District where Bilbray met his defeat.  Since the days of Proposition 187 in 1994, California’s Latino and Asian-American voters have led the way in rejecting anti-immigrant candidates. 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.

Now, with the state’s changing demographics becoming more and more pronounced each election cycle, even former Republican strongholds are under threat.  As the Los Angeles Times noted, “Orange County was once an instant synonym for Republican power, and the GOP’s dominance looked impregnable.”  Yet even Orange County “has faded from red to pink with the emergence of Latino voters, who are repelled by the party’s stand on immigration.”  Such is the story of current politics in California – which could be the story of politics in the future for the national Republican Party, unless they change their anti-immigrant ways.

In fact, the Beltway publication Politico titled a recent article, “Raul Ruiz Win Tells Story of Election 2012,” noting that, “If the growing sway of Latinos in American politics was the story of election 2012, Raul Ruiz’s triumph in California’s 36th Congressional District was a dramatic subplot.  The son of migrant farmworkers who scraped his way through UCLA and then Harvard Medical School, Ruiz dislodged Rep. Mary Bono Mack, a 14-year fixture of the Republican Conference who didn’t seem to fully appreciate the district’s fast-growing Hispanic population until it was too late.”

Over the course of the 2012 election cycle, America’s Voice tracked a range of competitive House and Senate races where Latino, Asian, and naturalized citizen voters could prove decisive. These included six House races in California, such as the Bilbray/Peters clash and the battle between Bono Mack and Ruiz.  With the election results finally settled, it’s clear that anti-immigrant Republicans who did not keep pace with the changing demographics of their district are either retiring, such as Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-CA), or being retired, as happened to Rep. Bilbray, Rep. Bono Mack, and Rep. Dan Lungren (R-CA) in 2012.  The remaining Republicans in the California delegation – especially those like Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA) who eked out narrow victories in 2012 – can expect similar fates in future election cycles if they refuse to evolve on immigration.

Beyond California, the Golden State’s role as a cautionary tale of immigration politics in 2012 could be especially relevant for states such as Arizona, Nevada, and even Texas.  Below, find recaps of the California races America’s Voice monitored throughout the 2012 cycle.  We include relevant demographic information, a description of the role immigration played in the campaign, and a snapshot of each race’s outcome and what it means moving forward.

For more, visit http://americasvoiceonline.org/research/americas-voice-releases-spotlight-on-house-races-to-watch-for-immigrant-and-latino-voters/




Candidates: Ami BERA (D) v. Rep. Dan Lungren (R), incumbent


Rating: Toss Up (Cook Political Report, 10/25/12)

Latino Voting Age Population: 13.7%

Latino Eligible Voter Population: 10.3%

Asian Voting Age Population: 13.7%

Asian Eligible Voter Population: 10.0%

Final vote: Bera 50.8%/Lungren 49.2%

Rep. Dan Lungren has been in Congress so long, he actually used to support immigration reform.  He was a House sponsor of the Immigration Reform Act of 1986, which President Ronald Reagan signed into law.  This bill legalized nearly 2.7 million undocumented immigrants, including as many as 1.3 million who are now voters in California.  Unfortunately, that was back during his first stint in Congress, from 1979 to 1989, before he left to seek a variety of statewide offices in California.  In 2004, Lungren returned to Congress with a changed tune, saying during a House hearing that a path to citizenship for undocumented workers “is what doomed all immigration legislation in the last two administrations.”  Lungren also supports the construction of a border fence, and amending the 14th Amendment to end birthright citizenship for babies born to undocumented parents.  His positions have earned him an “A” ranking from the extremist Americans for Legal Immigration PAC.  This year, Lungren was redistricted into California’s 7th Congressional District, a swing district that is equally split between Republicans and Democrats and where Latinos are 16% of the population.  His “tossup” race against Dr. Ami Bera was incredibly close—it was not officially called until November 15th—but Lungren lost, sending a clear message to House Republicans in changing districts: adjust your views or lose your next election.


Candidates: Julia BROWNLEY (D) v. Tony Strickland (R)


Rating: Toss-Up (Cook Political Report, 10/25/12)

Latino Voting Age Population: 38.5%

Latino Eligible Voter Population: 26.2%

Asian Voting Age Population: 6.8%

Asian Eligible Voter Population: 6.3%

Final vote: Brownley 52.0%/Strickland 48.0%

Technically, California’s 26th Congressional District is a “new” district.  But in reality, it’s just the result of a few tweaks made to the district of Republican Congressman Elton Gallegly.  Gallegly has been at the forefront of the House Republicans’ anti-immigration agenda since the 1990s, and is currently the Chairman of the House Immigration Subcommittee.  Gallegly supported rewriting the 14th Amendment to end “birthright citizenship” before it was a popular Republican position.  He tried to take California’s Proposition 187 nationwide with an amendment to the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act in 1996, and just last year, he led a failed effort with Judiciary Chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) to make E-Verify mandatory for all employers in the United States.  When California’s Congressional districts were redrawn this last cycle, the writing was on the wall for Gallegly, and he decided to take the dignified way out: he’s retiring.  In the toss-up race to fill his seat, Democratic candidate Julia Brownley had been an immigrant champion: a steadfast supporter of common-sense reforms like the DREAM Act, she co-authored the California DREAM Act granting in-state tuition to undocumented Californian college students, and has been endorsed by Immigrants’ List.  Her Republican opponent, Tony Strickland, had an anti-immigrant voting record as a state legislator: he voted against the California DREAM Act  and the TRUST Act, which would have kept the police from turning immigrants over to ICE on minor charges.  But if Strickland’s voting record resembled Gallegly’s, he certainly didn’t campaign as a Gallegly clone. He said that creating a path to citizenship for undocumented residents was “something to definitely have a look at,” and told the Western Growers Association that “I think we should encourage people who want to come here and work in our agriculture and hotel industries.  We need them.”  But that wasn’t enough for voters in the 26th District, who picked Brownley over Strickland. Not only did the anti-immigrant movement lose one of its key voices with Gallegly’s retirement, but the pro-immigrant movement gained a sure vote in his old seat.



Candidates: Raul RUIZ (D) vs. Mary Bono Mack (R), incumbent


Rating: Toss Up (Cook Political Report, 10/31/12)

Latino Voting Age Population: 39.4%

Latino Eligible Voter Population: 27.5%

Asian Voting Age Population: 3.2%

Asian Eligible Voter Population:  2.4%

Final vote: Ruiz 51.9%/Mack 48.1%

Seven-term Congresswoman Mary Bono Mack (R) almost got it right in October when she noted that Republicans needed to do a better job reaching out to the Latino vote.  “We’re missing a big opportunity,” she said.  Still, the Representative was too busy to help with this outreach herself, saying that she would “try my hardest to speak to Latino voters” after the November election.  Luckily, she’ll have time after her loss on election day. Her postponement of Latino outreach in a district where the electorate is almost one-third Hispanic helped to tighten up the race in the last few weeks of the campaign –  when commentators moved the race from the “lean Republican” column into “tossup” territory – and ultimately cost her the election.  Bono Mack is also known for having voted against the DREAM Act in 2010 (along with her husband, Rep. Connie Mack IV (R-FL)) and for once having called a heavily Latino part of her district a “third world toilet.” Meanwhile, Bono Mack’s successor, Raul Ruiz, was recently lauded in a Las Vegas Sun article entitled “Latino House candidates set to make history.”  Ruiz, a son of farmworkers who became a physician, supports the DREAM Act and has spoken up against anti-immigrant laws like Arizona’s SB 1070.



Candidates: Scott PETERS (D) v. Rep. Brian Bilbray (R), incumbent


Rating: Toss Up (Cook Political Report, 10/25/12)

Latino Voting Age Population: 11.5%

Latino Eligible Voter Population: 9.4%

Asian Voting Age Population: 17.8%

Asian Eligible Voter Population: 12.8%

Final vote: Peters 50.5%/Bilbray 49.5%

Brian Bilbray, California’s Congressman-turned-hate-group-lobbyist-turned-Congressman, was first elected to the House in 1994, and has faced close races before.  In 2000, he actually lost his seat in the 49th District to Democrat Susan Davis, after which he promptly turned around and became a lobbyist for the Federation for Immigration Reform (FAIR), which the Southern Poverty Law Center designates as a hate group.  In 2006 Bilbray returned to Congress from California’s 50th District, after being elected to replace Randy “Duke” Cunningham (who resigned on bribery charges).  Immigration is Bilbray’s pet issue: he chairs the extremist House Immigration Reform Caucus, blames immigrants for environmental degradation, says that you can identify an undocumented immigrant by the clothes he wears (“right down to the shoes”), supports mandatory E-Verify as a way to purge the country of undocumented workers, and blames the DREAM Act for murders committed by cartels.  Today, he is still listed as a member of the National Board of Advisors for FAIR. His race against Democrat Scott Peters in California’s redistricted 52nd Congressional District (which is 13% Latino) was listed as a tossup before the election, and was not called until November 16th, when Bilbray finally conceded to Peters. Bilbray may have been able to win his seat back once, but something tells us this time he’s out for good.  America’s Voice launched a five-figure radio and online ad buy in the race, featuring prominent DREAMers as narrators.  In the ads, the DREAMers stated that Latino voters in San Diego can “use their vote to stand up to the discriminatory and anti-immigrant policies.”  They then explained, “But not us.  We’re the DREAMers, the undocumented young people of the DREAM Act who, without papers and without fear, fight to complete our college education, serve our country, and achieve a path to citizenship.”



Candidates: Rep. Howard Berman (D), incumbent v. Rep. Brad SHERMAN (D), incumbent


Rating: Solid Democratic (Cook Political Report, 10/25/12)

Latino Voting Age Population: 24%

Latino Eligible Voter Population: 16.4%

Asian Voting Age Population: 12.3%

Asian Eligible Voter Population: 10%

Final vote: Sherman 60.4%

In California’s redrawn Congressional District 30, 14-term Democratic congressman Howard Berman faced off against 8-term Democratic congressman Brad Sherman.  Despite support from a vast array of Democratic leaders, unions, and legends like Dolores Huerta, Berman lost to Sherman twice–in the June primary, and the rematch in November.  Although Rep. Sherman has voted the right way on immigration over the years, Rep. Berman has been an essential—yet understated—player in every legislative battle since the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, and had a crucial role passing legislation that expanded labor and immigration rights and directly helped their families.  In a District that is 27% Latino and 12% Asian (with Latinos comprising 24% of voting-age residents), Sherman’s home-field advantage ruled the day. Although it seems that immigrants will retain the support of the representative from California’s 30th District after this election, they failed to retain the author of the original DREAM Act, and one of their biggest champions.



Candidates: Jose Hernandez (D), v. Rep. Jeff DENHAM (R), incumbent


Rating: Toss-Up (Cook Political Report, 10/25/12)

Latino Voting Age Population: 34.9%

Latino Eligible Voter Population: 24.8%

Asian Voting Age Population: 6.5%

Asian Eligible Voter Population: 5.5%

Final vote: Denham 53.5%/Hernandez 46.5%

National Journal has this to say about California’s 10th District: “This district seems bound to turn Democratic eventually; the question is when.  A quick walk around Modesto is all you need to understand the pace of demographic change in this area and why Republicans need to figure out how to recover ground with Hispanics sooner rather than later.”  At a Latino Community Roundtable with all the candidates in April, immigration was a popular topic.  Rep. Denham made it clear that his top priority on immigration is enforcement.  He said he opposes the DREAM Act, but claimed to support comprehensive immigration reform and a guest-worker program.  His 2012 challenger, Democrat Jose Hernandez, is an unabashed champion of immigrants. Hernandez, the California-born son of migrant farmworkers who were once undocumented, has been an outspoken champion of comprehensive immigration reform since before he entered politics. As a high-profile NASA astronaut who flew in one of the last space-shuttle missions, Hernandez gained national attention when he expressed his belief that “Having 12 million undocumented people here means there’s something wrong with the system, and the system needs to be fixed.”  Hernandez continued to speak out in favor of humane immigration policies during his congressional campaign. Denham beat Hernandez, but his days appear numbered. The 10th District may not have reached the point in its demographic transformation to be ready to elect a Democrat in 2012, but as National Journal said, “the question is when” it will be. Denham can try to play chicken with demographic change—and risk getting ousted the minute his district becomes diverse enough to lean Democratic—or he can make himself over to match the needs of his new constituents.

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