Whatever Happened to California Republicans?

From 1965 through 1990, Republican presidential nominees carried California six times in a row, the GOP’s best winning streak ever in the Golden State. California not only was the greatest source of Republican votes in the nation (roughly 10% of GOP votes nationally were delivered here in the 1980s), but its Republican Party produced two presidents within 20 years (Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972, and Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984). California’s “populist conservatives” also passed initiatives such as the property tax-cutting Proposition 13 in 1978 that helped spark the national “Tax Revolt.”

During the 1980s, California’s population grew by a record six million, mostly in Republican-leaning suburbia. The Republican future seemed prosperous in the nation’s most populous state.

Now, California Democrats have their own presidential six-election winning streak, Republicans are down to just 28% of registered voters (and sinking), and Gov. Jerry Brown was unbeatable for re-election in 2014. Meanwhile, Republicans took just about everything else across the country.

How could California Republicans, so strong under Nixon and Reagan, fall apart so completely?

California used to be a “swing” state at the national level, voting for every president from 1900 to 1956. At the state level, Republicans often remained in power due to the state’s “cross-filing” system where candidates could win the nominations of more than one party, thus helping state Republicans continue to control the Legislature despite Franklin Roosevelt sweeping the state repeatedly. For example, Governor Earl Warren in 1946 and Senator William Knowland in 1952 were the nominees of both major parties, and were re-elected easily. The result of cross-filing often made the policies of moderate-to-liberal Republican governors like Warren and Goodwin Knight very similar to those of Democrats. (Cross-filing was ended in the 1950s, thus making California politics as partisan as almost everywhere else). There certainly was a more conservative wing of California Republicans led by Nixon and Knowland, but many Republicans were moderates in the Warren-Knight mold.

California’s “reform” political system also included three key mechanisms to place power directly in the hands of voters: 1) the “initiative” allows placing policy ideas up for a yes-or-no vote; 2) the “referendum” allows a majority of voters to repeal any state law; and 3) the “recall” allows a majority of voters to remove a public official. (Ask Gray Davis.)

The 1958 election in which Pat Brown was elected by a 60-40% landslide ushered in a liberal, partisan era in California. His programs -- the California Aqueduct, the freeway system, the University of California and California State University -- were precursors of Kennedy and Johnson, who brought their New Frontier-Great Society agenda.

Pat Brown’s solid defeat of Nixon in the 1962 governor’s race seemed to signify liberal ascendance in California. Two years later, Lyndon Johnson’s burying of Barry Goldwater both nationally and in California was thought to confirm a new liberal era.

But beneath Goldwater’s disastrous defeat, new issues were percolating that would quickly undermine the Democrats. In 1963, Pat Brown passed an “open housing” law; a year later, opponents conducted a successful referendum repealing that law. While LBJ carried California by 18 points, the open housing law lost by 30. Johnson carried white workers by roughly 2-1 -- but those same workers voted against open housing by 3-1. The “open housing” effect showed up in California’s Senate race that year, as a former actor named George Murphy defeated former Kennedy Press Secretary Pierre Salinger mainly by appealing to anti-integration sentiments.

Meanwhile, another former actor named Ronald Reagan was gaining rave reviews for his staunch campaigning on Goldwater’s behalf.

Lyndon Johnson won such a massive across-the-board victory that his results don’t reveal much, but the defeat of Pierre Salinger and the housing law were the real long-term stories of 1964 in California.

The hidden fears of many Californians burst into the open with the Watts riot in August of 1965, the first major race riot outside the South. Sensing that voters were tired of Pat Brown, Reagan capitalized on voter resentment of high taxes, crime, and campus protests to oust Brown by nearly a million votes. His greatest political master-stroke was in understanding that the Democrats were now weakest where they had once been strongest -- the blue collar workers.

Of the twelve most-working class towns in Southern California, many of them filled with white workers from the aeronautics factories, all had been carried by Pat Brown in 1962; in 1966, he carried just one. This was the first election where the Reagan Democrats showed up in numbers for the Republican Party, and they became a mainstay for the party for the next generation.

In 1962, when Pat Brown beat Nixon, the New Deal coalition of white workers in the big urban areas, white populists in the Central Valley, and inner city minorities was still intact. But in 1966, Pat Brown’s losses among three Democratic white populist voting streams -- the Central Valley, and white worker neighborhoods in both Northern and Southern California -- were startling, dropping 20 points in the Valley and among Bay Area workers. The biggest changes occurred in the white working class precincts of L.A. County: in the blue-collar neighborhoods, he went from a 32-point lead against Knowland in 1958 to a 22-point loss to Reagan in 1966. That’s a net swing of over 50 points, and it’s what the political scientists call “realignment.”

These patterns carried over into 1968 and cost Democratic presidential nominee Hubert H. Humphrey dearly: he lost the white working class, so he couldn’t carry the Golden State. California’s 40 electoral votes provided Richard Nixon with his majority in the Electoral College.

(For a fuller explanation of these trends, see California After Arnold, Chapter 4).

In retrospect, the 1966 results set up a pattern that would last for a generation, as “Reagan Democrats” in the suburbs and Central Valley would keep California Republican for president six straight times from 1968 to 1988. The Republicans also held the governorship for a majority of these years. From Reagan’s election as governor in 1966 to Pete Wilson’s inaugural in 1991, California Republicans won 14 of 21 elections for president, governor, and U.S. senator.

Entering the 1990s, California Republicans seemed to have everything going for them: the first George Bush was a reasonably popular president, the state had gained a post-war record seven House seats after the 1990 Census, and Pete Wilson had narrowly turned back a spirited challenge from Dianne Feinstein in the 1990 gubernatorial race.

But history came to the rescue of California’s Democrats in 1992. The success of Presidents Reagan and Bush in winning the Cold War meant that defense spending would be reduced sharply. During the height of the defense spending boom in the 1980s, The Almanac of American Politics reported that California received 25% of Pentagon contracts (more than twice its population share). These were largely well-paying jobs that caused the suburban middle class to boom in Southern California, thus combining nationalism with economic self-interest. As Kevin Phillips wrote, Southern Californians “logically tend to support patriotism, Pentagon, and paycheck.” The U.S. victory in the Cold War had the unintended consequence of throwing nearly a million Southern Californians out of work in a state the first George Bush had won by barely 350,000 votes in 1988. The result was that many Reagan Democrats began to return to their roots.

President Bush barely beat Dukakis by 51-48% here in 1988. The Reagan coalition of white suburbanites, rural voters, white blue-collar Democrats, and upwardly mobile New Minorities (Asians and Hispanics) may have been completely destroyed in 1992 as Bush suffered huge defections from white workers, Asians, and especially white suburbanites. The fact that Republicans under Bush in Washington and Wilson in Sacramento were in charge when the roof fell also did maximum damage.

Then came the 1992 watershed election that began a new era: the Clinton-Feinstein-Boxer-Obama Years. From 1992 until 2012, Democrats presidential nominees have carried the state six consecutive times by million-vote-plus margins, while Feinstein and Boxer have remained undefeated in the Senate, and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s unique bipartisan candidacy has been the only successful GOP effort since 1995.

That was the "bad luck" part of the GOP decline. Much more lasting damage to California Republicans was done by political mistakes and poor candidate choices.

The GOP's two governors in the 1980s and 1990s, George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson, had much in common: they were both uncharismatic men who were first elected with less than half the vote, and by hardball negative campaigns that took advantage of their opponents’ weaknesses. Unlike George W. Bush in Texas, neither man compiled much of a governing record, nor was either a plausible contender for national office. (Wilson briefly tried in 1996, but bombed badly). Only Arnold had much of a personal following and he wasn’t eligible to run for president.

Even worse for California Republicans was Pete Wilson’s gamble on immigrant-bashing in the mid-1990s. After Clinton swept the state in 1992, Wilson fell 20 points behind Kathleen Brown (Pat’s daughter and Jerry’s younger sister). Republicans were in a full-scale panic: white “Reagan Democrats” appeared to be coming back home, and they were about to lose the governor’s office again to a third member of the hated Brown Dynasty.

Wilson hitched his re-election to an initiative known as Proposition 187 that sought to deny social services to illegal immigrants and their children (and also required teachers to report any suspected illegal aliens to the government). He ran ads showing immigrants sneaking across the Mexican border with the tag line “they just keep coming.” This strategy worked superbly in the short run: both Prop 187 and Wilson won by more than a million votes.

But beneath the surface were some interesting trends: Wilson made significant gains among white voters, but Brown carried the Asian vote narrowly and Hispanics by 3-1. For the first time ever, the Asian and Hispanic vote moved in the opposite direction of white voters. Previously, the immigrants had swung along with the broad (mostly white) electorate.

The record Asian and Hispanic turnout was another sign of realignment. (For years, Hispanics had been referred to as the “Sleeping Giant” because they weren’t voting much). Prop 187 was the proximate cause of these changes, as the immigrants voted identically on the governor’s race and the so-called “Save Our State” initiative. Prop 187 shook the Hispanic giant out of its slumber.

Many Hispanics and a good number of Asians saw Wilson’s ads as race-baiting. And Wilson’s claim that immigrants were a burden to the state was a bad rap: Asians and Hispanics both have higher-than-state-average labor force-participation rates and lower divorce rates.

With over two million potential voters, Hispanic activists wondered whether Prop 187 would finally spark increased Hispanic turnout. It did. After 1994, Hispanics who were eligible to become American citizens began to exercise their options. Voter registration workers funded by organized labor ventured forth in East L.A., the blue collar suburbs of L.A., in the Mission District of San Francisco, on the Southside of San Jose, in Downtown San Diego, the farm worker precincts and barrios of the Central Valley, and even in Santa Ana in Orange County. Unlike the 1970s and 1980s, they began to get results.

Even without Prop 187, Hispanic clout probably would have slowly increased, as they had more voters eligible every election. But Wilson sped up the clock immeasurably. California Journal reported that new Hispanics registrants asked to sign up with the “non-Wilson” party. Statewide exit polls by the Los Angeles Times and the networks show that the Hispanic share of California voters began increasing steadily in every election year since the low-turnout gubernatorial race of 1990, when they were only 6% of the voters.

After 187, the floodgates opened: 1996 was the first election where over one million Hispanics voted. More than 75% voted for Clinton, the Democrats’ best performance among Hispanics since the 1970s. The Democratic margin in the Hispanic community jumped by over 500,000 votes. And in the decade after 1996, Hispanic margins for Democratic candidates got even bigger, hitting an all-time high in 2012. (A special Field Survey done in 2000 confirms these data findings of an increase in Hispanic voters of one million from 1995 to 2000. These new voters were mostly poor, mostly young, and mostly Democrats).

Since 2000, network exit polls report that another one million Hispanics have started voting, with the Hispanic share of the electorate jumping from 11% in 1996 to 22% in 2012.

The net result has been to dig a hole for Republicans that not even George W. Bush’s above-average appeal to Hispanics could dig out of. President Obama twice carried the Golden State by margins over three million, a Democratic cushion that will be extremely difficult to overcome. While California Republicans can still win low-turnout elections for local office (they will likely gain a few legislative seats in 2014), they simply are not competitive yet at the statewide level.

With Jerry Brown taking an easy re-election, the prospects are good that the Democratic presidential nominee will carry California in 2016.

After Gray Davis was elected governor by 20 points in 1998, veteran Democratic consultant Bill Cavala said that the conservative era was completely finished and that Republicans could only come back as reformers. Arnold used exactly that strategy from 2003 to 2010, and posted some important accomplishments in reforming redistricting, primary voting, and public schools.  Probably the best tack any GOP candidate for governor could use would be to pose as a morally upright reformer, as several of the state’s most popular and effective governors (Hiram Johnson, Earl Warren) have done.

For California Republicans to recover in 2016 or 2020, they will need either a terrifically popular nominee with a strong reform message, or to be rescued by history in the form of a debacle that happens on the Democrats’ watch. Or maybe both.