The year 1994 allegedly looms large when many talk of the demise of the California GOP. From 1967 to 2019, Republicans controlled the Governorship of the state for 31 of 52 years. In 1994, the GOP Governor Pete Wilson lent his support to Proposition 187 which denied state benefits to undocumented immigrants. The spin is that this move alienated California’s growing Hispanic population. However, Proposition 187 won with 59% of the vote. A majority of black and Asian voters supported it and it garnered 27% support among Hispanics. Even in its aftermath, the state elected Arnold Schwarzenegger Governor as a Republican even though he too supported Proposition 187 and that was in 2003. Ultimately, a gaggle of liberal groups blocked it from being enacted and two judges managed to overturn the will of 59% of voters in California.
Whether Proposition 187 was start of the downfall of the state GOP or not, one thing is certain. The “controversy” opened up a rift in the state GOP between a conservative activist base and the more traditional, establishment, money-backed Republicans. It is no secret that the business community, through groups like the Chamber of Commerce, back leniency when it comes to illegal immigration. And perhaps 1994 is important for another reason.
It was about then that the growing high-tech sector was taking off centered in Silicon Valley. Suddenly, coastal California became a beacon for young, hip, liberal entrepreneurs. Silicon Valley became a progressive paradise where one can get filthy rich while being politically woke. The high tech companies supported higher taxes, bigger government, and open borders. They had the money to back these dreams with catastrophic results. By 2002, the state relied on the largesse of these companies to expand the government and services. Politicians bowed to these companies. But as taxes climbed and regulations became draconian, there was a mass exodus of middle class Californians to neighboring states that continues to this day. The only thing that buttresses California’s population is the influx of illegal immigrants and the high birth rates of Hispanics- legal and otherwise.
In effect, the state lost a large share of its Republican base to other states. Many conservatives left for low-tax, low-regulation states. The GOP appeal of low taxes, less regulation, and limits on abortion by those who decided to remain behind fell on deaf ears among the new liberal, coastal gentry class of voters. But the results are obvious. Rolling energy blackouts have become the norm, California suffers the worst array of taxes in the country, forest mismanagement which has produced massive and deadly wildfires, eroding infrastructure, failing schools, and an epidemic of homelessness in major cities.
And things are not getting any better for Republicans in California. Their isolation is staggering. With Democrat victories in Orange and San Luis Obispo counties in 2018, a blue wall now extends along the coast from the Mexican border to the lone GOP holdout- Del Norte county (population: 27,828)- the last stop before entering Oregon.
Orange County is a classic example of what is wrong with the state GOP. County chairman Fred Whitaker asserted that the legalization of “ballot harvesting” and its use by Democrats in 2018 is what swayed many elections. It is true that a few Republicans were winning their races on Election Day night 2018, but the results swung once these “harvested ballots” came in to officials. In that county alone, there were over 250,000 Election Day drop-off ballots received that flipped the results. Whittaker noted that the GOP had to do something about the phenomena. The solution is simple: Do the same thing. The problem is that most GOP voters are averse to giving a ballot to a third-party representative. Another solution is to end the practice, but after Democrat gains in 2018, there is no chance the liberals in California will allow that. Instead, fighting fire with fire seems the only logical recourse.
Another factor that has caused the decline of the GOP in California is the end of the Cold War. This led to the near collapse of the state’s very large defense industry in Southern California in some of the very districts won by Democrats. A severe recession in 2008-2009 also decimated the area causing many middle class/Republican voters to seek new places to call home. Left behind were the progressives. Hence, the out-migration of aerospace workers coupled with the influx of immigrants from Latin America are changing the political and demographic landscape of Southern California.
It is ironic that analysts look at Proposition 187 as the turning point in the political shift in California. After all, it was a Democrat-majority legislature that passed a law denying driver licenses to undocumented immigrants. Diane Feinstein came out in support of it and criticized her Republican opponent of being “soft on immigration.” She, and other Democrat leaders in California, were calling for a strengthening of the border between California and Mexico with some even suggesting a wall.
As California’s middle class and white populations declined, there was a shift culturally also. Crime was a potent argument when it came to elections, but it as an issue declined in importance. Instead, items like abortion, LGBT rights, and climate change came to the fore. This was especially prevalent in higher middle class suburban communities. As a result, GOP registration dropped, Democrat registration remained static, and unaffiliated registration soared. As in other states, the rise of the unaffiliated voter is important politically because it is that slice that any candidate must appeal to if they have any chance of electoral success. And although California political contests are technically “non-partisan,” these unaffiliated voters tend to vote for the Democrat.
These shifts are being witnessed in other Republican strongholds. In the 1990s, the GOP held a 22-point registration advantage in Orange county. Today, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a slim margin. That trend spread south into neighboring San Diego county where the 25th District flipped to Democrat control and down ballot state representatives won making the legislature even more blue. Between 1980 and 2000, the immigrant population of Orange county grew five times faster than the general population of California. Not all are Hispanic as there is also an increasing Asian population.
Throughout California, Republicans are becoming an extinct species. They are already on the endangered species list in every major city in the state- Los Angeles (12%), San Jose (16%), Sacramento (15%), San Francisco (6%), and Oakland (4%). Some of this trend extends into the suburbs of these cities which would be major cities in smaller states.
What may be solution for a state GOP down in the dumps? Stay tuned for part 2.
Next: California, Part 2.