LOS ANGELES – If the future happens first in California, the Republican Party has a problem.
The nation’s most populous state – home to 1 in 8 Americans – has entered a period of Democratic political control so far-reaching that the dwindling number of Republicans in the Legislature are in danger of becoming mere spectators at the statehouse.
Democrats hold the governorship and every other statewide office. They gained even more ground in Tuesday’s elections, picking up at least three congressional seats while votes continue to be counted in two other tight races – in one upset, Democrat Raul Ruiz, a Harvard-educated physician who mobilized a district’s growing swath of Hispanic voters, pushed out longtime Republican Rep. Mary Bono Mack.
The party also secured a supermajority in one, and possibly both, chambers in the Legislature.
“Republican leaders should look at California and shudder,” said Steve Schmidt, who managed John McCain’s 2008 campaign and anchored former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s re-election team in 2006. “The two-party system has collapsed.”
Republican voter registration has dipped so low – less than 30 percent – that the party’s future state candidates will be hobbled from the start.
Republicans searching for a new direction after Mitt Romney’s defeat will inevitably examine why President Barack Obama rolled up more than 70 percent of the Hispanic and Asian vote, and 9 of 10 votes among blacks, essential ingredients in his victory. Women also supported Obama over Romney nationally and in California, where they broke for the president by 27 percentage points.
There is no better place to witness how demographic shifts have shaped elections than in California, the home turf of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan that just a generation ago was a reliably Republican state in presidential contests.
A surge in immigrants transformed the state, and its voting patterns. The number of Hispanics, blacks and Asians combined has outnumbered whites since 1998 in California, and by 2020 the Hispanic population alone is expected to top that of whites. With Latinos, for example, voter surveys show they’ve overwhelmingly favored Democratic presidential candidates for decades. Similar shifts are taking place across the nation.
“There are demographic changes in the American electorate that we saw significantly, first, here in California and Republicans nationally are not reacting to them,” said Jim Brulte, a former Republican leader in the California Senate.
“Romney overwhelmingly carried the white vote – 20 years ago, that would have meant an electoral landslide. Instead, he lost by 2 million votes” in the state, Brulte said.
Romney bypassed California this year, waging his fight in battlegrounds such as Ohio and Florida. In claiming the biggest electoral prize in America, California’s 55 electoral votes, Obama rolled up a nearly 21 percent margin. Voters also returned Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein to Washington in a landslide, after Republicans put up a virtually unknown candidate, Elizabeth Emken, an autism activist who had never held elected office.
Independents now outnumber Republicans in 13 congressional districts in California, a trend analysts predict will continue.
California counted more registered Republicans in 1988 than it does today, although the population has grown by about 10 million over that time. You’d have to go back to that year to find a Republican presidential candidate who carried the state, George H.W. Bush.
Surprisingly, Democrats continued to make gains in the state even at a time of double-digit unemployment, with polls showing that voters are unhappy with Sacramento and Washington. And it could get worse for the GOP. Republicans are trailing in two other House races in which the vote counting continues.
If Democrats achieve the supermajority in both houses of the Legislature, they can pass tax increases and override gubernatorial vetoes without any Republican support.
Democrats believe they have the state’s demographics on their side with a message that appeals to a younger, more diverse population.
More than half the young voters in the state, ages 18 to 39, are Hispanic, according to the independent Field Poll. Thirty-five percent are Asian. If you look into a classroom in the Los Angeles area – tomorrow’s voters – 3 of 4 kids are Hispanic.
The GOP retains pockets of influence regionally, including rural, inland areas.
Republican National Committee member Shawn Steel has been pushing the party to become more aggressive about recruiting Asians.
“It’s not just all about the Latinos,” he said.
Schmidt traces GOP troubles with Hispanics to 1994, when voters with encouragement from Republican Gov. Pete Wilson enacted Proposition 187, which prohibited illegal immigrants from using health care, education or other social services.
The law eventually was overturned, but it left lingering resentment with many Hispanics at a time when the Latino population was growing swiftly and becoming increasingly important in elections.
California “is not just a large state, population-wise, it’s a trend-setting state,” said Schmidt, a public relations strategist. “It could be a glimpse of the future.”