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Former Washington Journalist
Contributor on The Bipartisan Press
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“They keep coming,” an ominous voice warns one TV commercial. “Two million illegal immigrants in California. The federal government won’t stop them at the border, yet requires us to pay billions to take care of them.”
You might think this was one of the TV spots Donald Trump was running ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, in which he focused incencessantly about migrants approaching the southern US border.
It would be a good guess, but you would be about a quarter century late.
California Republican Gov. Pete Wilson ran that ad as part of part of his strategy to shore up what was shaping up as a tough re-election race in 1994.
Wilson had tied his hopes for a second term in Sacremento on tying himself to Proposition 187, which proponents like Wilson touted as the “Save Our State (SOS)” initiative.
Prop 187 was a punitive proposed law aimed squarely at “illegal immigrants,” making it illegal for them to access public education, non-emergency healthcare and many more important services in the state. And, in November 1994, the voters of California approved this ballot initative overwhelmingly.
A generation later, California is the epitome of the reliable “blue state.” After all, it came as no surprise when Democrat Hillary Clinton trounced Republican Donald Trump in 2016 61.7 percent of the vote to 31.6 percent. California hasn’t given its many dozens of electoral votes to a Republican since George Herbert Walker Bush in 1988.
But it wasn’t always so. California was once one of the most reliably Republican states in the nation. Californians, for decades, voted Republican for president-breaking the streak only to join the LBJ landslide over Barry Goldwater in 1964. The state even went for native son Richard Nixon over the dashing John F. Kennedy in 1960.
Moreover, Ronald Reagan’s governorship of the state was just part of long line of Republicans in charge in Sacramento, interrupted only by father and son Democrats, Pat and Jerry Brown.
Looking for what tilted California from red to blue, many see that passage of Proposition 187 – and particularly Republican Pete Wilson’s strong embrace of it – as a major inflection point.
Pete Wilson won the battle in 1994, securing his re-election. But the California GOP would lose the war as the party sank into an irrelvancy which continues today.
Proposition 187 – which would wind up being struck down later anyway -angered and motivated California’s burgeoning Latino population, which would shoot up from less than 3 million in 1970 to 14 million in 2010 – becoming a dominant demographic group in the state in 2014, according to US Census Data.
Anger among California Latinos over Prop 187 prompted a surge in voter registration for a number of years, and many Latino voters found a home with the Democratic Party.
California Republican voter registration has been in a slow decline since 2004.
The cautionary value of the California experience should be clear.
As in California, the population of the United States as a whole is growing and becoming more diverse. The United States is set to become a white minority in 2045, according to the US Census.
Any political gain that Donald Trump and the Republicans might see from obsessing over border walls, demonizing immigration, and the use of divisive xenophobic rhetoric will be short term, at best.
Long term, Trump and his party will suffer the same debilitating taint experienced by the California GOP.