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How To Turn A Red State Blue: California Edition

Republicans celebrated when California Gov. Pete Wilson was re-elected in 1994. But his divisive campaign led to a backlash, especially among the growing Latino population in the state.
Kevork Djansezian

All this week, NPR is taking a look at the demographic changes that could reshape the political landscape in Texas over the next decade — and what that could mean for the rest of the country.

Democrats who hope to turn Texas from red to blue are looking to California for inspiration.

Golden State Democrats now hold every single statewide office and big majorities in both houses of the Legislature. In the state that gave us Ronald Reagan, Republican registration has fallen below 30 percent. And California hasn't voted for a Republican for president since 1988.

Where did the Republicans go wrong?

Here's a look at how a state can go from red to blue in five simple steps:

STEP 1: Start with a state that's not that red to begin with.

Dan Schnur, head of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, says that two or three decades ago, California was more of a centrist state. Voters "tended to be more conservative on issues relating to the economy and jobs and taxes, and they tended to be more ... liberal on health care and education, environmental protection and other cultural and social issues."

(Incidentally, that happens to be a pretty good description of current Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown.)

STEP 2: Alienate the fastest-growing demographic group in the state.

In 1994, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson hitched his bid for re-election to the campaign for Proposition 187 — a ballot measure aimed at denying public services to undocumented immigrants. Wilson and 187 won handily, but there was a backlash, says Raphael Sonenshein, head of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles. "In the decade of the 1990s, a million new Latino voters came to the rolls. People who weren't citizens tried to become citizens; those who were citizens registered to vote." As a result, Latinos now make up more than a fifth of the California electorate — more than double their percentage in 1990. (And most of Proposition 187 was ruled unconstitutional.)

STEP 3: Take positions out of sync with the voters.

California voters have long been kind of "live and let live" on social issues and passionate about the environment. So when California Republicans come out against gay marriage or abortion rights or efforts to curb global warming, women and younger voters just tune them out. And Asian-Americans, who frequently register as independents, are also voting in overwhelming numbers for Democrats.

"The danger for Republicans," says Democratic consultant Bill Carrick, "is people start casting votes for one party and they do it in a couple of elections, it becomes a permanent political identity."

Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger won back the governor's office in a historic recall election in 2003. But Schwarzenegger didn't seem interested in building up the rest of the party.
Rick Bowmer / AP
Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger won back the governor's office in a historic recall election in 2003. But Schwarzenegger didn't seem interested in building up the rest of the party.

STEP 4: Win the governor's office! Then, get nothing out of it.

In 2003, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger booted Democratic Gov. Gray Davis out of office in a historic recall election. By his second term, he was making appeals for "post-partisanship." No one except the Governator seemed to know what that meant, but it was an indication that he didn't have much interest in party-building.

"They had a guy who ended up being a party of one," Carrick says.

James Brulte, a former Republican leader in the state Senate and current head of the California GOP, says that when Schwarzenegger ran for re-election, "the party operation was not designed to help anybody other than Gov. Schwarzenegger."

STEP 5: Get overshadowed by the national party.

Brulte wants to rebuild the California Republican Party by bringing a message of smaller government, lower taxes and more freedom to minority communities that Republicans have neglected. He ignores divisive social issues.

But "Californians all have TV sets, all have radios," says Carrick, the Democratic consultant. And, he says, what the Republicans are saying in Washington and around the country on those issues is "totally out of sync with California."

But keep in mind ...

As tough as things are for Republicans in California right now, it could be a long time before anything similar happens in Texas, says Sonenshein at the Pat Brown Institute.

"There's a huge lag between demographic change and political change," he says. Turning a red state blue "could [take] 20 years or more."

Texas Republicans have time, Sonenshein says, to figure out how to keep the Texas GOP from suffering the same disastrous fate as Republicans in California.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ina Jaffe
Ina Jaffe is a veteran NPR correspondent covering the aging of America. Her stories on Morning Edition and All Things Considered have focused on older adults' involvement in politics and elections, dating and divorce, work and retirement, fashion and sports, as well as issues affecting long term care and end of life choices. In 2015, she was named one of the nation's top "Influencers in Aging" by PBS publication Next Avenue, which wrote "Jaffe has reinvented reporting on aging."

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