In CA, the GOP is DOA.

The Republican Party in the Golden State has dissolved. For the last 20 years, my home state has been blue and then bluer. Statewide officials have almost always been Democrats, including both U.S. senators. 

But there were still about a dozen or so members of Congress from California who were Republican, out of a total delegation of 53 lawmakers. That wasn’t much, but it was something. Now imagine cutting that number in half, so that Republicans only occupy about seven or eight of the congressional seats in the state. 

And just like that, over a couple of decades, California becomes Massachusetts West.  

Paul Ryan doesn’t understand how this happened. This week, during a Washington Post event, the outgoing House speaker brought up what he considers a “bizarre” election system in California that he claims cost Republicans seven congressional seats.

To understand what has happened in California, you need to flip the calendar back a couple of decades.

Remember Pete Wilson? He was the Republican governor who helped wipe out his party by making the GOP brand toxic with a group of Californians that represents 1 in 5 voters and nearly 40 percent of the state’s population. 

Those figures are significant, but they don’t tell the whole story. Factor in all the friends, neighbors, and spouses of the people in that group — who might likewise come to resent the Republican Party for picking on their loved ones. And you can see what a terrible calculus it was to antagonize that group of voters.    

And for what? The short-term benefit of Wilson winning re-election to what would be his final four-year term.

In 1994, with the state’s economy on the ropes and facing off against Kathleen Brown — heir apparent to one of the great Democratic dynasties in the history of the state — Wilson rolled the dice on the theory that he could scare up enough votes from whites who felt overrun and displaced by Latinos than he could absorb whatever losses he would suffer in terms of the Latino vote. 

He even had a vehicle, a statewide ballot initiative called Proposition 187 — which would have denied education, social services, and nonemergency services to illegal immigrants and their children, even those born in the United States. Wilson hitched his re-election campaign to the initiative campaign, until they seemed to be one and the same.   

California voters approved the measure, returned Wilson to the governor’s office for a second term, and doomed the long-term future of the Republican Party. 

Why? Latinos didn’t forget. 

But Republicans can’t say they weren’t warned. They were told this would happen, frame by frame — 24 years ago this month, during that fateful 1994 election.  

The warning came from Jack Kemp and William Bennett, two of the most influential Republicans of the late-20th century and co-directors of the Washington-based center-right organization, Empower America. 

The two men traveled to California to spread a simple message to Republicans: passing Proposition 187 would place their party on “the wrong side” of the immigration debate.

They were both drawing directly on the spirit of Ronald Reagan, the pro-immigration Republican who crushed Walter Mondale in 1984 by winning 40 percent of the Latino vote. 

After Proposition 187 was approved by voters, it was soon struck down as unconstitutional by a federal judge, just as opponents has predicted it would be. 

Undaunted, the newly re-elected Wilson tried to take the issue national in order to help him run for president in 2000. Neither the national version of Proposition 187 nor Wilson’s presidential campaign got very far.

A couple weeks after the 1994 election, Kemp and Bennett spoke at an event sponsored by the Manhattan Institute. The conservative research group had just issued a new report challenging the claim by nativists that illegal immigrants take jobs and use welfare. 

“Just like health care, there is no crisis in legal immigration,” Bennett told the audience. “There are some problems with illegal immigration, but ... Wilson is scapegoating, d***it, and he should stop it. Now he is trying to ride this horse to a national level. Come on, Pete, get off it.”

Meanwhile, Kemp looked down the road.  

“I believe there is no chance for the Republican Party to be a majority party in this country without being a party of inclusion,” he said. “We have to make the case that immigration is a blessing to America, not a curse.”

True enough. And now, for its sins, it’s the California Republican Party that is cursed. The only question is for how long. 

Oh, and how’s this for a small world? You know who got his start in politics working with Bennett and Kemp at Empower America? A sharp, young, pro-immigration conservative named Paul Ryan.  


Ruben Navarrette is a contributing editor to Angelus and a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group and a columnist for the Daily Beast. He is a radio host, a frequent guest analyst on cable news, and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors and host of the podcast “Navarrette Nation.” Among his books are “A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano.”

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