Just about the time the California Republican Party was
beginning to recover from its disaster of 1994
– the year the GOP lost the mushrooming Latino vote and made
California a Democratic bastion – along comes Arnold
Just about the time the California Republican Party was beginning to recover from its disaster of 1994 – the year the GOP lost the mushrooming Latino vote and made California a Democratic bastion – along comes Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Maybe it wasn’t so strange that he seemed to thumb his nose at the vast majority of this state’s Hispanic voters by endorsing the armed Minutemen volunteers who patrolled the Arizona sector of the Mexican border this spring. He takes a lot of his political advice from the architects of that 1994 debacle.
That year was a classic case of a Republican winning a battle while his party lost the war.
Then-Gov. Pete Wilson started the fall campaign that year well behind Democrat Kathleen Brown in the polls. He centered his drive for a second term on TV commercials depicting illegal immigrants sneaking over the border, with the line “They keep coming…” superimposed on the pictures. Wilson also endorsed and campaigned for Proposition 187, with which he shared the ballot that fall. Wilson was handily reelected and the measure passed easily, aiming to deprive illegal immigrants of all government benefits, from schooling to emergency hospital care.
But 187 galvanized the Latino voting bloc that had been a sleeping giant. Suddenly, longtime legal immigrants began to fear some future xenophobic effort would target them. They lined up for citizenship by the hundreds of thousands. Latino voting rolls in California rose by almost 1.5 million over the next six years, with virtually all registering and voting Democratic. Hate crimes against Hispanics spiked during the 187 campaign and for six months after it passed, further accelerating Latino fears.
Wilson’s name became anathema among both most Mexican-Americans and Mexicans.
And California, a state that had voted for Democrats for president in only two of the previous eight elections, has now gone Democratic in the last four. What’s more, Schwarzenegger’s election in the 2003 recall still marks the only time since Wilson’s 1994 victory that a Republican won a top-of-the-ticket race for either governor or the U.S. Senate. The steadily-increasing Latino vote decided many of those races – including Sen. Barbara Boxer’s victory last year over Republican Bill Jones.
As a result, Republicans gradually divorced themselves from Wilson and 187 over the 10 years that followed that benchmark 1994 campaign. Not a single major GOP figure, for instance, supported an effort to qualify an updated version of 187 for last year’s ballot.
And Hispanic voters responded. Even with fellow Latino Cruz Bustamante on the recall ballot, more than 40 percent of Hispanic voters went for Schwarzenegger in that election. Shift those votes to Bustamante, the second-place finisher, and Schwarzenegger would have been in a very tight contest.
Almost as many Latino voters in this state went for President Bush in his reelection drive last year, bringing the GOP’s percentage back near the levels it enjoyed in the pre-187 heyday of Ronald Reagan.
But Schwarzenegger threatens that recovery by the GOP. When he first called for “closing” the Mexican border, then amended that to “securing” the border, he raised Latino hackles even though he claimed he had misspoken at first because of his “language problem.” When he followed up on a radio talk show with praise for the Minutemen, he started alarm bells ringing.
Before long, those bells in effect were ringing in his ears. Just a week or so after the radio appearance, several thousand shouting immigrants – no one ascertained their legal status – materialized on the steps of the state Capitol, loudly voicing their displeasure.
Democratic Latino leaders seized on this as a new way to solidify their party’s hold on the Hispanic vote. New Los Angeles Mayor-elect Antonio Villaraigosa, a former Democratic speaker of the state Assembly, voiced his strong displeasure. So did a corps of Latino legislators, all Democrats. Among other things, they pointed out that Wilson has been a close adviser to Schwarzenegger, whose administration also features a heavy sprinkling of former Wilson aides and consultants.
Latino Democrats also know that the more active anti-immigration advocates become, the more fear rises among immigrants ranging from illegals to naturalized citizens.
The more fear they feel, the more likely they are to vote and vote against the party they blame for targeting immigrants. Since 1994, that’s been the Republicans.
Which explains why Schwarzenegger’s careless tongue most likely has suddenly negated 10 years of work by his party to shed its anti-immigrant label. The GOP will find out in November 2006 exactly how much the governor really did hurt its stature.