From the beginning of the campaign, far-right nativism has defined the agenda. Here’s why it could backfire—badly – – –
It’s been a while since anyone said “As California goes, so goes the nation” and that’s probably since that moldy old saw was never very accurate to begin with. Sure, newspaperman Horace Greely’s “go west young man” was once a common exhortation and from the time of the gold rush through the “Mad Men” era, California was seen as a place for cutting edge social change. Its politics were often in the vanguard too from leftwing Upton Sinclair’s run for governor in the 1930s to the right wing Ronald Reagan’s run 30 years later. Howard Jarvis passed Proposition 13 in California in 1978 setting off a national crusade to cut taxes and drown the government in the bathtub which continues to this day.
But in a country that is dramatically polarized between blue and red, the only thing deep blue California leads these days is fellow travelers. Still, there are some lessons to be learned by Republicans from California’s recent experiences in one specific area: immigration. If there’s one thing the golden state knows about it’s Republican politicians scapegoating undocumented workers for political gain — and what happens when Latino voters decide to fight back.
You may recall that 1994 was a big Republican year nationally. For the first time in decades, the GOP gained a majority of seats in Congress, largely running on a doctrinaire conservative message as illustrated by Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America. When the cycle started, California Republican Governor Pete Wilson was far down in the polls with little chance of recovery. But California Republicans in 1994 were a lot like Trump voters all over the country are today. That is: They were utterly convinced that a vast wave of immigrants from Mexico were pouring over the border to obtain free medical care, welfare benefits and schooling, even as they stole all the good paying jobs from real Americans. They allegedly did all this while stubbornly refusing to learn English.
The Republicans were so worked up, they put an initiative on the ballot now known as the notorious Proposition 187. The initiative was officially called SOS for “save our state,” and the opening words of it read:
The People of California find and declare as follows: That they have suffered and are suffering economic hardship caused by the presence of illegal immigrants in this state. That they have suffered and are suffering personal injury and damage caused by the criminal conduct of illegal immigrants in this state. That they have a right to the protection of their government from any person or persons entering this country unlawfully.
The initiative was draconian, even requiring police to verify citizenship of anyone they detain and forcing school districts to verify citizenship of all students and their families. Pete Wilson ran an ad supporting it that has become one of the most famous political ads in history, in which an ominous voiceover intoned: “They keep coming: 2 million illegal immigrants in California,” over grainy black and white footage of figures scurrying across the screen like insects exposed to the light.
Prop 187 won overwhelmingly with 59 percent of the vote. And Pete Wilson won re-election handily, as did Senator Dianne Feinstein who had run on a promise to crack down on immigration when she got back to Washington. It seemed to be a rousing success.
But while Republicans were high-fiving each other over their great victory, the court issued an immediate stay of the proposition and the Latino community in California began to protest and organize. And they also began, in great numbers, to vote Democratic. The fallout from Prop 187 and a few subsequent anti-immigrant proposals decimated the Republican Party in California. In 1994 the GOP held 26 of 52 (50 percent) U.S. House seats in the California delegation. Today they hold just 15 of 53 (28 percent). The Republican nominee has not won California in the last 6 presidential elections.
According to research by Latino Decisions this is why:
Prop 187 and the Pete Wilson years had two effects that shifted the state dramatically to the Democrats. First, the number of Latino voters grew quickly in response to perceived attacks on the Latino community. In comparison to other states that did not experience the same anti-immigrant environment such as Texas or New York, the research clearly demonstrates that Latino voter registration in California increased must faster than anticipated by population growth alone. Second, during the mid-1990s extensive research documents a increase in Latino votes for the Democratic party in California that was sustained throughout the 2000s. Not only did more Latinos start voting, they started voting heavily against the Republican Party.