GOP's 1994 problem is back: Why a big win this year could doom it long-term

Riling up anti-immigrant passion may help turn out the base in '14. But here's a lesson they can't ignore (Updated)

Published August 22, 2014 11:43AM (EDT)

Marsha Blackburn, Louie Gohmert                        (AP/Chris Usher/Carolyn Kaster)
Marsha Blackburn, Louie Gohmert (AP/Chris Usher/Carolyn Kaster)

The recent crisis of children from Central and Latin America arriving at the Mexican-American border has led to Republican lawmakers making inflammatory statements about the children and encouraging deportation. But if Republicans want an example of what can happen if a party alienates a group of voters, they can look no further than California.

From 1982 to 1994, Republicans won four gubernatorial elections back-to-back and had turned out for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984. But the end of the Cold War led to a decline in the aerospace industry that had driven the state’s economy.

Republican Gov. Pete Wilson saw a decline in his approval ratings going into the 1994 election. As a U.S. senator, Wilson supported amendments to the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986, which gave amnesty to immigrants.

But leading up to the election, Wilson sued the federal government to reimburse the state for lost money used on immigrants. Wilson also hitched his campaign to Proposition 187, which would have denied government services to people who had migrated illegally and required educators and health providers to report the legal status of immigrants.

Wilson ran a series of ads tying his campaign to Proposition 187, saying the federal government requires “us” to take care of immigrants. He also touted sending the National Guard to the border.

“It was a serious harm and also a repudiation of their own value as human beings and citizens,” said Rep. John Garamendi, who ran for the Democratic nomination for governor in 1994.

The proposition mobilized many pro-immigration groups. At the time, Kevin de León was an English-as-a-second-language teacher and helped organize some of the largest marches, with more than 150,00 people participating.

“The idea that politicians would scapegoat a child for all economic maladies and economic ills was quite frankly despicable and cowardly,” said de León, who is now Senate president pro tempore in California.

Some conservatives, like businessman Ron Unz, thought the law would hurt Republicans in the long term, which led to him running a primary challenge against Wilson.

“The point I made to them, does it really make sense for the Republican Party to run as the anti-immigrant in a state where half of the people are immigrants or children of immigrants,” said Unz.

Now the patterns are being mirrored with conservative pundits and politicians lambasting immigrants, calling the U.S. their “sugar daddy” that provides resources for immigrants, or saying they are likely to be recruited by gangs.

Republicans could wind up winning the battle for public opinion, as support for more secure borders increased since earlier this year.

But while Republicans in California may have won the immigration battle in 1994, they lost the political war as Latinos were alienated from the Republican Party in California.

“What it also did was leave an indelible mark with the community associating the GOP with being anti-Latino,” said Clarissa Martinez de Castro, deputy vice president of the National Council on La Raza.

In particular, the fight about Proposition 187 in California motivated Latinos to become active in the political process. In the years after the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, California accounted for more than half of all applications for naturalization. But this had not translated into a surge in voter registration or political action, said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Southwest Voter Education Project.

“What Pete Wilson and Prop 187 did was mobilize naturalized Latino voters in a way that hadn't been done before,” Gonzalez said.

In the subsequent gubernatorial campaign, Wilson’s successor, Gray Davis, made numerous references to healing the wounds from Proposition 187.

“Clearly what 187 did was to get Latinos involved in the political process. They were mistrustful. They were not deemed a political force,” said Davis in an interview. “187 was seen rightly or wrongly as a direct attack. They registered in record numbers and voted in record numbers.”

In addition, federal courts invalidated the measure and eventually Davis worked to get the state into mediation to resolve issues. Davis also signed legislation allowing undocumented immigrants access to in-state tuition.

The GOP is aware that many Latinos are growing increasingly mistrustful of Republicans. However, much of the base of conservative supporters are staunchly opposed not only to immigration reform but are seeing the influx of children as fulfillment of their anxieties.

But just as California Republicans were ambushed by demographics in California, Latinos have seen their population increase by 50 percent in the past decade and Latino voting was at a high of 11.2 million nationally in 2012. The number of eligible Latino voters also grew by almost 4 million in between 2008 and 2012.

“What they've learned when people are talking about immigration, it's not like they aren't talking about you,” Martinez de Castro said, referring to Latinos.

But just as in California, many Latinos are not politically active. Only 48 percent of eligible Latinos turned out to vote in 2012 and two-thirds of legal immigrants from Mexico are not naturalized. If Latino legal immigrants feel they are targeted, they might feel the need to naturalize and mobilize.

“The psychology of a lot of immigrants, even though they were legal, was I'm just here and then I'll return back home,” said de León, who has proposed a resolution to remove 187 from California’s legal code. “Home is where you are at right now. It jolted the mind-set of that old way of thinking.”

Davis said he thinks once immigration reform is passed, it will force both parties to have to continuously compete for Latino votes.

“Then I think a lot of the rancor and grumbling will fade away and after that both parties will compete for the Latino vote on a number of issues but less so on immigration,” Davis said.

Unfortunately, Republicans on the national scene continue to ratchet up not only language but legislation. It looks like the party en masse has made the decision not to compete for Latino voters -- but make immigrants, and therefore Latinos by proxy, a target to stir up the base. That may help turnout this year, but there could be worse ramifications down the road.

Update, 8/26/14: This post has been updated to clarify that 11.2 million Latinos voted nationally in 2012. Also, 48 percent of eligible Latinos voted in 2012. We regret any confusion.

By Eric Garcia

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