California’s Republican statewide candidates are working hard to define the GOP as focused on providing practical solutions to the state’s lagging economy, high poverty rate and underperforming schools.
As the party that doesn’t hold the White House, the “Republican brand” is most strongly defined by Republican members of Congress whose statements and actions in Washington give most Americans their strongest signals as to what our party is all about.
This dynamic of national figures defining the Republican brand everywhere is often helpful, such as by calling attention to unsustainable spending and debt, or highlighting the dangers of hollowing out our military while new global challenges continue to emerge.
However, there is also a powerful downside that has a real and tangible impact in California and throughout the Southwest.
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Well-respected analyst Charlie Cook notes that following the 2010 redistricting, the average House district held by a Republican went from 73 percent white to 75 percent, while during the previous decade the national electorate dropped from 67 percent white to 64 percent. In other words, House Republicans seen daily on television defining the party brand increasingly hail from districts where winning the support of Latinos, Asians and African Americans is not essential for their own re-election.
In July 2013, Iowa Republican Steve King said this in opposition to legislation that would allow children who came here illegally to apply for citizenship: “For everyone who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there that, they weigh 130 pounds and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.”
Now, for King, whose state has a tiny Latino population (just 5.3 percent in the 2010 census), there’s little price to be paid at the next election for such comments because, for him, the Republican Party doesn’t have a problem with Latino voters. He doesn’t personally need them for his own re-election.
However, when those words receive national attention, especially in Spanish-language media such as Univision and Telemundo, they serve to define the Republican Party – and not in a way that does any members of his party in the Southwest any favors. In fact, such comments move many Latinos more firmly into the Democratic camp.
This highlights the serious challenge that racial gerrymandering creates for Republicans in California with its diverse electorate: The GOP brand is heavily influenced by elected officials elsewhere who have little incentive to earn the support of the tiny Latino, Asian or African American communities in their districts.
Yet, for Republicans in Congress who would like to see their bills signed by a Republican president, changing direction and broadening the appeal of the party’s brand is imperative. In recent presidential elections, we have seen multiple states with large Latino populations move increasingly out of range: New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada and California most prominent among them.
Democrats are not immune to the effects of racial gerrymandering, either, but the effect is muted by President Barack Obama’s influence in defining his own party’s brand with greater impact than his fellow Democrats in Congress.
Several of California’s Republican members of Congress, especially those representing heavily Latino districts in the Central Valley, and our statewide candidates, help point the way forward by highlighting ways to improve America’s immigration system, consciously building broad coalitions of support outside of the traditional GOP comfort zone and avoiding the off-putting rhetoric.
Immigration is a key “gateway” issue for many Latino voters. Claiming that no improvements to our immigration system or procedures can be made until the border is secure doesn’t cut it. Many Latinos see a “100 percent secure” border as a fantasy, and therefore an excuse for leaving the status quo in place.
Yet, Republicans’ skepticism of government should make our party the natural party of reform, not just in immigration but in everything. We can begin by clearly articulating the reforms we support, and their benefits, while making it a priority to win the backing of diverse communities even when the math doesn’t require it. Because the future does.