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The GOP’s California Blues

What explains the ‘reverse tsunami?’

Dec 13, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 13 • By FRED BARNES
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The GOP’s California Blues

The election in California didn’t turn out as poorly as you might think. An $18 car fee, the proceeds going to spruce up parks, was voted down. So was an attempt to repeal a string of tax breaks for business. Limits on user fees, often described as “hidden taxes,” were approved. And legalization of marijuana was soundly defeated.

These were sensible, conservative results that in most states would have been part of a sweeping Republican victory. But not in California. Republican candidates here lost every race for statewide office in the November 2 election. In a year when Republicans picked up 63 House seats nationally, they failed to capture a single Democratic seat in the Golden State. They lost a seat in the state assembly, where they were already badly outnumbered.

“A sort of reverse tsunami took effect,” says Republican consultant Ken Khachigian. California voters “know who we are, and they don’t like us,” Duf Sundheim told the Associated Press. Sundheim was Republican party chairman in California from 2003 to 2006.

“The Republican party brand is a major liability in California,” Sundheim wrote in a postelection white paper. Khachigian echoes this view: “The great deadly sin of this campaign was having an ‘R’ by your name on the ballot.”

Sundheim cites the example of Steve Cooley, the popular district attorney of Los Angeles County who was the Republican candidate for state attorney general. He led his Democratic opponent, Kamala Harris, a left-wing San Francisco lawyer, in every preelection poll. In Cooley’s own polling, he was 8 percentage points ahead on the eve of the election. He lost narrowly.

Cooley had won L.A. County three times in local contests. Yet he lost the county to Harris by double-digits. Sundheim said Democratic professionals explained Cooley’s defeat to him quite simply. Until November 2, most voters didn’t know Cooley was a Republican.

While gaining in most states, Republicans have lost ground in California since the last midterm election in 2006. The Democratic advantage in party registration was 42-34 percent four years ago. Now it’s 44-31 percent. Republicans are regarded unfavorably by nearly a 2-1 margin, according to Sundheim.

The most surprising aspect of their defeat was the surge in Hispanic turnout. Hispanics are 21 percent of registered voters but were 22 percent of the electorate this year. “That exceeded any historical number we’ve ever seen,” Khachigian says. Hispanics voted overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates.

Bill Whalen, a political analyst at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, says Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman was initially picking up Hispanic support with a flood of ads in the Hispanic media. A month before the election, she was accused of mistreating her Hispanic housekeeper, Nicky Diaz, whom she had fired a year earlier after learning Diaz was in the country illegally. Democrats spent millions to play up Diaz’s allegations on Spanish-language television. 

“To win in California, a general rule (which will increase over time) is that the [Republican] candidate needs to obtain at least 35 percent of the Latino vote,” Sundheim wrote in his analysis. “Meg was there in September .  .  . but after the housekeeper issue the vote shifted.” She got 31 percent, the Republican Senate candidate, Carly Fiorina, 28 percent. 

For California Republicans, the scenario for victory statewide looks like a fishhook. It starts with winning in Sacramento and, moving southward, in the Central Valley. It swoops southeast, then north, with strong wins in San Diego and Orange County, then up the Pacific coast with victories in Los Angeles County and in Ventura County north of L.A.

In 2010, the fishhook didn’t materialize. Republicans did poorly in Sacramento, their vote in San Diego and Orange County was weak, and they were crushed by a massive Democratic turnout in L.A. Democrats outspent Republicans by 3-1 or 4-1 on get-out-the-vote efforts. “Most of that appears to have been spent in Los Angeles,” Sundheim notes. One result: The African-American vote is estimated to have nearly doubled from its normal turnout in a midterm election.

Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, was an excellent retail candidate who believed until late on Election Night that she had a chance of winning. “I was proud of the campaign we ran,” she told me. “In the end, the Democratic turnout swamped us.” She lost to Senator Barbara Boxer, 52-42 percent. In the governor’s race, Whitman was defeated by Jerry Brown, 54-41 percent.

What must Republicans do to recover in California? A lot. Their bench of potential candidates for statewide office is thin. California, Sundheim says, “is the seventh most liberal state in the country.” That doesn’t help. The position of many Republicans on immigration alienates Hispanics. California is a blue state in which Democrats run brutal, lavishly financed, and effective campaigns. And President Obama is still more popular than not here.

Despite all that, Republicans have won in recent memory. In 2003, Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor in a recall election and reelected in 2006. Since there was no primary, a destructive fight between conservatives and moderates was avoided. Primaries drain funds. Fiorina emerged from the Senate primary with less than $1 million. Boxer, with $11 million, immediately began attacking Fiorina for sending 30,000 jobs overseas when she ran HP. Fiorina, short on money, was late in responding.

Can a conservative win in California? The answer is yes, but only a conservative like Ronald Reagan with crossover appeal. Fiorina was unabashedly pro-life, pro-offshore oil drilling, pro-gun, and pro-state’s rights. Yet she got more votes than Whitman, who ran to the center.

“I asked a number of professionals whether Carly was too far to the right to win in California,” Sundheim said. “The consensus was that Boxer was so far to the left, that this was a case, if not the case, where a Carly conservative could win.” But not in 2010, it turned out.

It’s the initiatives that provide a ray of hope for Republicans and conservatives. Liberal initiatives that passed didn’t rely on liberal arguments. Abolishing the requirement for a two-thirds majority in the legislature to enact a budget was promoted by attacking the political class in Sacramento, a Tea Party theme. The bid to suspend the Global Warming Act was defeated by demonizing Texas oil interests who oppose reductions in greenhouse gases. And the co-chair of the campaign to keep the act alive was none other than George P. Shultz, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state and, at age 90, a figure of eminence among California Republicans.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.

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