Capitol Alert

Trump’s border wall raises hopes in a GOP outpost of California

Morning light filtered into the doughnut shop in Murrieta’s old downtown, and Bob Swinford lingered over coffee, longing for a revolution.

Immigrants from Mexico, the retired truck driver said last week, have “overrun” this corner of Riverside County, coddled by a liberal state. Among California’s offenses in his reckoning: Granting driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants and giving undocumented immigrant college students access to financial aid.

Yet in the Republican presidential primary, Swinford, 80, holds hope. His party’s front-runner, Donald Trump, can trace his rise in part to his signature policy proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, and to his claim that rapists and other criminals are flooding into the United States. Both Trump and Ted Cruz, the senator from Texas, have pledged to deport immigrants living in the country illegally.

In Murrieta, a conservative outpost 80 miles from the Mexico line, the presidential primary’s sharp rhetoric serves as counterpoint to a more permissive approach to immigration in this heavily Democratic state. It’s elevating a brand of hardline politics that for many Californians had begun to fade from view.

Swinford pushed back his chair and walked out onto the sidewalk.

“We need a revolt,” he said.

As a trio of Republican presidential candidates prepare to campaign in California ahead of the state’s June 7 primary, their greeting party continues to shrink. The number of Republicans in California has dwindled as the electorate grows more liberal and diverse. No Republican holds statewide office, and party registration has fallen below 28 percent.

Unlike Trump and Cruz, Republicans running for statewide office in recent years have tempered their tone on immigration, adopting profiles closer to that of Ohio Gov. John Kasich – a relatively moderate Republican – in a bid to appeal to Latino voters. The California Republican Party removed the term “illegal alien” from its platform last year and withdrew its support for a proposal to require workers on guest visas to get special identification cards allowing the government to track them.

Even then, however, members of the party’s political and professional classes suspected fervor surrounding the presidential campaign would drown their efforts out. Trump’s rise in state polls confirmed their fears, underscoring enduring concern about illegal immigration among the party’s rank and file.

According to a USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll last month, 92 percent of likely Republican voters in California view illegal immigration as a crisis or major problem.

A majority of likely Republican voters supports building a wall.

In Murrieta, a city of about 108,000 people in a county where Republicans still outnumber Democrats, tension over the border flared two years ago, when protesters waving U.S. flags turned back buses of immigrant detainees bound for a local Border Patrol station. The protests, which drew national attention, came amid controversy surrounding the crossing of thousands of young, unaccompanied minors into the country from South America.

That summer, while Republicans here watched their state’s Democratic governor, Jerry Brown, promise California would “do its part to shelter any young children that are in need of protection,” then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry – who would become one of the first Republican candidates to drop out of the presidential race – was ordering National Guard troops to the border. House Republicans moved to speed up deportations.

Two years later, Cruz carried his home state of Texas, and Trump is leading among Republicans in California.

Down the street from Vista Donuts, tending an empty bar, Erin Mitchell began to cry.

Mitchell, who is white and married to a black man, said Trump is “pretty racist,” and she worries about raising her children in a place that celebrates his ideas. The 31-year-old woman said she and her husband are “pinching our pennies” to move to “a suburb of a city that has people who are not all the same.”

They would leave behind a home on a dirt road where one neighbor grazes horses and another flies a flag often associated with the tea party, with the motto “Don’t tread on me.”

“It seems like Murrieta is a very dark spot in a liberal (state),” Mitchell said. “And by dark, I mean anti-everything, anti-immigration.”

Sparsely populated for most of its existence, Murrieta more than doubled in size from 2000 to 2010, as relatively affluent young people flocked to buy homes and commute to jobs in San Diego, Los Angeles or Orange County.

Despite the city’s growth, Swinford describes it as “really quiet and peaceful out here.” Murrieta maintains the kind of smallness where the bartender knows the men who meet for doughnuts and Rick Dudley, the city manager, knows the bartender.

Dudley said the protests at the Border Patrol station in 2014 cast the residents of Murrieta in an unfair light, that many participants were from out of town. Still, he acknowledged the episode “made Murrieta look bad,” a setback for a bedroom community laboring to lure investment and improve its job base.

“From an economic development standpoint, we had questions for a while from people who said, ‘Is this what you’re about? And how are you looking at attracting foreign investments if that’s what the community is about?’ 

Dudley said, “The interesting thing is this is the most colorblind community I’ve ever been in. … You just don’t hear about racial or ethnic issues here.”

One area in which California Republicans repeatedly disagree with Cruz and Trump – even in Murrieta – is on mass deportation. Sixty percent of Republicans in the state say there should be a way for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States to remain here legally, according to a recent Public Policy Institute of California poll. The Republicans who express this opinion include many of those who hold otherwise hardline views.

In a Murrieta office decorated with a U.S. flag and a poster advising “Smith & Wesson spoken here,” Wayne Furlong, who sells real estate, said Mexican immigrants are some of “the hardest workers” he knows.

He wants to militarize the border and build a wall of historic proportions: “Like the Great Wall of China.”

But Furlong, 58, said, “If you’re here and you’re honest and you’re working, let’s get you legal. Nobody wants this shadow society.”

Mike Madrid, a Republican consultant who specializes in Latino politics in California, said immigration retains “some lightning-rod issues” for Republicans in California, “but in terms of a pathway to citizenship, it’s not.”

“The Republican base is not there anymore,” he said. “That was 10, 15 years ago.”

More recently, then-Senate Republican leader Bob Huff and other Republican lawmakers urged Congress in 2013 to pass a comprehensive overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws. The California Chamber of Commerce has called for California’s congressional Republicans to support a guest-worker program and path to citizenship for people here illegally.

Still, concerns about border security persist within the Republican Party’s rank and file, especially among older Republicans and conservatives supporting Trump. For them, Madrid said, immigration is “still the No. 1 or No. 2 issue … and it will be until they die or move.”

Rob Stutzman, a Republican consultant working on an anti-Trump effort in California, said, “There’s no question there’s a generational component of this that’s just going to have to change through attrition.”

He added, “Isn’t that a nice way of saying they just have to die off?”

According to the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, the number of unauthorized immigrants from Mexico living in the United States declined from a peak of about 6.9 million in 2007 to about 5.6 million in 2014, making up about half of all undocumented immigrants in the country.

But California is one of six states that house a disproportionate share of those immigrants, and frustration among Republicans here remains intense.

At a rally last week in Orange County, in Cruz’s first public appearance in the state since it became clear that California’s primary would likely prove critical, a prolonged cheer went up when Cruz said, “We’re going to stop amnesty and secure the borders and end sanctuary cities and ban welfare benefits for those here illegally.”

Near the back of the crowd, Spencer Tepper, a 48-year-old Cruz supporter who works at a McDonald’s in Westminster, said he is weary of co-workers speaking Spanish in the store.

“They’re not assimilating,” he said, “and half the time they get the orders wrong.”

For Tepper and like-minded Republicans, Trump and Cruz offer a pointed rebuke of the state’s most recent, failed Republican campaigns.

Two years ago, California’s Republican candidate for governor, Neel Kashkari, supported a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants.

Ron Nehring, a former California Republican Party chairman who ran for lieutenant governor, supported a guest worker program for agriculture and raising limits on visas for high-tech workers. In an opinion piece in The Sacramento Bee in 2014, Nehring criticized Republican members of Congress for rhetoric that he said can “move many Latinos more firmly into the Democratic camp.”

“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,” Nehring wrote.

Nehring, who is now Cruz’s national spokesman, said last week that “California Republicans, like most Americans, are interested in seeing the law enforced.” He acknowledged, however, that he talked “a little bit differently” about immigration than Cruz.

No Republican presidential candidate is likely to compete against the Democratic nominee in November in California, which has not gone for a Republican since George H.W. Bush in 1988. But the primary will likely determine whether Trump can amass the 1,237 delegates necessary to secure the nomination.

For candidates running in the GOP’s closed contest – in which independent voters are precluded from casting ballots – an unyielding position on immigration could be a “very savvy strategic decision,” said Dan Schnur, director of the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll.

“The voters they need to reach here are those who still agree with them on this issue,” he said.

But if a strident position on illegal immigration is unlikely to harm either Trump or Cruz, it could jeopardize Republicans’ longer-term efforts to forge ties with Latino voters, an increasingly prominent part of the California electorate. Republicans in this state still suffer the effects of Proposition 187, the 1994 initiative to restrict public services to undocumented immigrants that, while overturned by the courts, alienated many Latinos.

Michael Garrison, president of Riverside County Young Republicans, said it is possible that the Republican candidates’ focus on immigration will turn off some potential voters.

Latino members of his own group “don’t take it personally,” he said, “but they will tell you that maybe their cousin does.”

“All they see is, ‘Oh my God, they’re trying to deport Mexicans,’ ” he said.

But Garrison said Trump and Cruz have tapped into an “up-swell of people who have been relatively apolitical for a long time, and they … realize the economic threat that that community poses to American workers.”

“I think as a Republican right now, it’s very hard to take a position that, oh, illegal immigration is wonderful for the economy and it’s wonderful for blue-collar workers in America,” he said. “I’ll tell you what, the blue-collar workers in this nation don’t agree with that statement.”

At the doughnut shop in Murrieta, Swinford said the protest at the Border Patrol station was the “right thing to do.”

He supports legal immigration, he said, repeating the word “legal” and rapping his fingers on a visitor’s forearm.

“It’s so frustrating,” he said. “How many abortions do we have in this country, and yet we want to import them to pick our cabbage?”

David Siders: 916-321-1215, @davidsiders. Jim Miller of The Bee Capitol Bureau contributed to this report.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee