LOS ANGELES – Jim Brulte, California’s Republican chairman, has sobering but useful words for his party’s leaders and 2016 candidates: If they don’t learn from what happened to the GOP here, they may doom themselves to repeating its decidedly unpleasant experience.
“California is the leading edge of the country’s demographic changes,” Brulte said in an interview. “Frankly, Republicans in California did not react quickly enough to them, and we have paid a horrible price.”
One measure of the cost: In the three presidential elections of the 1980s, California voted twice for Ronald Reagan and once for George H. W. Bush. The state has not gone Republican since, and it won’t get any easier in 2016.
The hole is deep enough that Brulte has concentrated his own energies on rebuilding the party from the bottom up. He has enjoyed some real successes at the local and county levels, and the GOP eliminated the Democrats’ veto-proof majorities in the state legislature in the 2014 mid-terms.
But the Republicans are still vastly outnumbered in both houses – 25-14 in the state Senate, 52-28 in the Assembly – and the Democrats picked up a seat in 2014 in the U.S. House of Representatives. They have won all of California’s statewide offices in three of the last four elections. The last time that happened: 1882.
The principal cause of the GOP’s troubles is its alienation of Latinos, Asian-Americans and African-Americans in a state whose population is now a majority non-white. Republicans can win in 2016 without carrying California, but the party’s struggles here highlight the extent to which the GOP is making its life in presidential years very difficult with its increasingly hard line on immigration, its image as a bastion for older, white conservatives, and its solicitude for Americans with very high incomes. When House Republicans in Washington voted to repeal the estate tax last week, it was helping all of 5,400 of the wealthiest households in America, not exactly a move with mass appeal.
As has often been the case in American history, California is simply the harbinger of changes – in this case demographic – that are happening more slowly elsewhere. “The one thing no one can stop,” says Rep. Ted Lieu, a Democrat who was elected to Congress here in 2014, “is that every month, the rest of America looks more like California.”
The Republicans’ problem with Latino voters is especially pronounced here. The passage of Proposition 187 in 1994 with the strong support of Republican Gov. Pete Wilson – the ballot measure barred illegal immigrants from a variety of state services – simultaneously alienated Hispanic voters from the GOP and mobilized many of them into the political process.
The same thing is now happening nationally. The growing anti-immigrant sentiment in the GOP has cut the Republicans’ Latino share of the vote from the 40-percent range for George W. Bush to 27 percent for Mitt Romney in 2012. The party’s strenuous opposition to President Obama’s executive actions on immigration will only make this problem more acute.
But even more remarkably, Republicans have also suffered severe declines among Asian-Americans. According to the exit polls, a majority of Asian-Americans voted for George H.W. Bush in 1988. But in 2012, Romney won only 26 percent of their ballots.
Rep. Xavier Becerra, a Democrat whose district here includes Koreatown, Little Tokyo, Chinatown and Historic Filipinotown, notes that when he was first elected to Congress in 1992, a large share of Asian-Americans leaned Republican. That’s no longer true, and both Becerra and Lieu pinpointed the immigration issue as the primary cause for the shift.
Republican opposition to the Dream Act, designed to give relief to illegal immigrants brought to the United States as minors, especially rankled Asian-Americans, Lieu said: “Republicans were saying, ‘Come support us, we like you, but we want to deport your children.’”
Brulte thus takes particular pride in his outreach efforts to Asian-Americans. His party’s victorious legislative candidates last year included state Sen. Janet Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American, and Young Kim, the first Korean-American Republican woman to serve in the California Legislature.
But this was only a start, and as 2016 approaches, every GOP candidate should tack this reminder from Brulte on a headquarters wall: “In 2012, Mitt Romney carried 59 percent of the white vote and he carried independents. In 2004, this would have elected him president. In 2000, it would have given him an Electoral College landslide. In 2012, it gave him second place.”
E.J. Dionne’s email address is email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.