How To Turn A Red State Blue: California Edition
All this week, NPR is taking a look at the demographic changes that could reshape the political landscape in Texas over the next decade — and what that could mean for the rest of the country.
Democrats who hope to turn Texas from red to blue are looking to California for inspiration.
Golden State Democrats now hold every single statewide office and big majorities in both houses of the Legislature. In the state that gave us Ronald Reagan, Republican registration has fallen below 30 percent. And California hasn't voted for a Republican for president since 1988.
Where did the Republicans go wrong?
Here's a look at how a state can go from red to blue in five simple steps:
STEP 1: Start with a state that's not that red to begin with.
Dan Schnur, head of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, says that two or three decades ago, California was more of a centrist state. Voters "tended to be more conservative on issues relating to the economy and jobs and taxes, and they tended to be more ... liberal on health care and education, environmental protection and other cultural and social issues."
(Incidentally, that happens to be a pretty good description of current Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown.)
STEP 2: Alienate the fastest-growing demographic group in the state.
In 1994, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson hitched his bid for re-election to the campaign for Proposition 187 — a ballot measure aimed at denying public services to undocumented immigrants. Wilson and 187 won handily, but there was a backlash, says Raphael Sonenshein, head of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles. "In the decade of the 1990s, a million new Latino voters came to the rolls. People who weren't citizens tried to become citizens; those who were citizens registered to vote." As a result, Latinos now make up more than a fifth of the California electorate — more than double their percentage in 1990. (And most of Proposition 187 was ruled unconstitutional.)
STEP 3: Take positions out of sync with the voters.
California voters have long been kind of "live and let live" on social issues and passionate about the environment. So when California Republicans come out against gay marriage or abortion rights or efforts to curb global warming, women and younger voters just tune them out. And Asian-Americans, who frequently register as independents, are also voting in overwhelming numbers for Democrats.
"The danger for Republicans," says Democratic consultant Bill Carrick, "is people start casting votes for one party and they do it in a couple of elections, it becomes a permanent political identity."
STEP 4: Win the governor's office! Then, get nothing out of it.
In 2003, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger booted Democratic Gov. Gray Davis out of office in a historic recall election. By his second term, he was making appeals for "post-partisanship." No one except the Governator seemed to know what that meant, but it was an indication that he didn't have much interest in party-building.
"They had a guy who ended up being a party of one," Carrick says.
James Brulte, a former Republican leader in the state Senate and current head of the California GOP, says that when Schwarzenegger ran for re-election, "the party operation was not designed to help anybody other than Gov. Schwarzenegger."
STEP 5: Get overshadowed by the national party.
Brulte wants to rebuild the California Republican Party by bringing a message of smaller government, lower taxes and more freedom to minority communities that Republicans have neglected. He ignores divisive social issues.
But "Californians all have TV sets, all have radios," says Carrick, the Democratic consultant. And, he says, what the Republicans are saying in Washington and around the country on those issues is "totally out of sync with California."
But keep in mind ...
As tough as things are for Republicans in California right now, it could be a long time before anything similar happens in Texas, says Sonenshein at the Pat Brown Institute.
"There's a huge lag between demographic change and political change," he says. Turning a red state blue "could [take] 20 years or more."
Texas Republicans have time, Sonenshein says, to figure out how to keep the Texas GOP from suffering the same disastrous fate as Republicans in California.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Democrats who hope to turn Texas from red to blue look to California for inspiration. There, Democrats now hold every single statewide office and big majorities in both houses of the state legislature. Don't forget, California was home to Ronald Reagan.
Here's NPR's Ina Jaffe on how California became so consistently blue.
INA JAFFE, BYLINE: This is the state that gave the nation Ronald Reagan and, before that, Richard Nixon. Yet, California voters weren't really raw-meat red even when Republicans were riding high, says Dan Schnur, a political analyst at the University of Southern California.
DAN SCHNUR: They tended to be more conservative on issues relating to the economy and jobs and taxes. And they tended to be more left-leaning, more liberal, on health care and education, environmental protection and other cultural and social issues, as well.
JAFFE: Which sounds a lot like current Democratic Governor Jerry Brown.
Arguably, the long decline of California's Republican Party really picked up speed in 1994, when Republican Governor Pete Wilson hitched his re-election bid to Proposition 187.
(SOUNDBITE OF A POLITICAL AD)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: They keep coming, two million illegal immigrants in California. The federal government won't...
JAFFE: Prop 187 and Wilson proposed denying public services to the undocumented. Both won handily. But Rafiel Sonnenschein, a political scientist at Cal State Los Angeles, says Prop 187 inspired California Latinos.
RAFIEL SONNENSCHEIN: In the decades of the 1990s, a million new Latino voters came to the rolls. People who weren't citizens tried to become citizens. Those who were citizens registered to vote.
JAFFE: And now, Latinos account for more than a fifth of the electorate and they vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. So do Asian-Americans, women and young people.
But veteran Democratic political consultant Bill Carrick says the Democrats' success in California isn't just about demographics, they're winning on the issues.
BILL CARRICK: The environment, climate change, same-sex marriage, abortion. Of course, the danger for Republicans is people start casting votes for one party and they do it a couple of elections, it becomes a permanent political identity.
JAFFE: But recently, there was one California Republican who bucked the trend and did pretty well with Latinos and younger voters.
ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER: We have an opportunity to move past partisanship, to move past bipartisanship, to move to post-partisanship.
JAFFE: Yeah, you recognize the voice. Former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger may have been the only one who knew what post-partisanship meant but his passion for it was an indication of how little he was interested in building the California Republican Party. That task is now left to Jim Brulte, former Republican leader in the legislature and now the party chair. Demographics, he says, do not have to be destiny.
JIM BRULTE: Too many Republican leaders spend all of their time talking to the choir and not going into neighborhoods with our message of smaller government, lower taxes, more individual freedom and liberty.
JAFFE: Note, Brulte says nothing about abortion or gay marriage or other divisive issues. And he doesn't intend to. But Democratic consultant Bill Carrick says Brulte's efforts are undermined by Republicans in Washington and other parts of the country...
CARRICK: Who are totally out of sync with California. So, Californians all have TV sets, all have radios, and they can see what the Republicans are saying nationally. And oftentimes they react very negatively to that and it influences how they view the Republican Party here in California.
JAFFE: But as tough as things are for Republicans in California right now, it'll be a long time before anything similar happens in Texas, says political analyst Rafiel Sonnenshein.
RAFIEL SONNENSHEIN: There's a huge lag between demographic change and political change. It could be 20 years or more.
JAFFE: And Sonnenshein says that could give Texas Republicans time to figure out how to avoid the calamity that's befallen Republicans in California.
Ina Jaffe, NPR News.
CORNISH: And tomorrow our series Texas 2020 continues with a look at the changing face of the Texas Democratic party. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.