Cruz & Trump could crater the GOP: A history lesson for a party on the brink of disaster

From the beginning of the campaign, far-right nativism has defined the agenda. Here's why it could backfire—badly

By Heather Digby Parton


Published January 7, 2016 10:19PM (EST)

  (Jeffrey Malet, Hill/Photo montage by Salon)
(Jeffrey Malet, Hill/Photo montage by Salon)

It's been a while since anyone said "As California goes, so goes the nation" and that's probably since that moldy old saw was never very accurate to begin with. Sure, newspaperman Horace Greely's "go west young man" was once a common exhortation and from the time of the gold rush through the "Mad Men" era, California was seen as a place for cutting edge social change. Its politics were often in the vanguard too from leftwing Upton Sinclair's run for governor in the 1930s to the right wing Ronald Reagan's run 30 years later. Howard Jarvis passed Proposition 13 in California in 1978 setting off a national crusade to cut taxes and drown the government in the bathtub which continues to this day.

But in a country that is dramatically polarized between blue and red, the only thing deep blue California leads these days is fellow travelers. Still, there are some lessons to be learned by Republicans from California's recent experiences in one specific area: immigration. If there's one thing the golden state knows about it's Republican politicians scapegoating undocumented workers for political gain -- and what happens when Latino voters decide to fight back.

You may recall that 1994 was a big Republican year nationally. For the first time in decades, the GOP gained a majority of seats in Congress, largely running on a doctrinaire conservative message as illustrated by Newt Gingrich's Contract with America. When the cycle started, California Republican Governor Pete Wilson was far down in the polls with little chance of recovery. But California Republicans in 1994 were a lot like Trump voters all over the country are today. That is: They were utterly convinced that a vast wave of immigrants from Mexico were pouring over the border to obtain free medical care, welfare benefits and schooling, even as they stole all the good paying jobs from real Americans. They allegedly did all this while stubbornly refusing to learn English.

The Republicans were so worked up, they put an initiative on the ballot now known as the notorious Proposition 187. The initiative was officially called SOS for "save our state," and the opening words of it read:

The People of California find and declare as follows: That they have suffered and are suffering economic hardship caused by the presence of illegal immigrants in this state. That they have suffered and are suffering personal injury and damage caused by the criminal conduct of illegal immigrants in this state. That they have a right to the protection of their government from any person or persons entering this country unlawfully.

The initiative was draconian, even requiring police to verify citizenship of anyone they detain and forcing school districts to verify citizenship of all students and their families. Pete Wilson ran an ad supporting it that has become one of the most famous political ads in history, in which an ominous voiceover intoned: "They keep coming: 2 million illegal immigrants in California," over grainy black and white footage of figures scurrying across the screen like insects exposed to the light.

Prop 187 won overwhelmingly with 59 percent of the vote. And Pete Wilson won re-election handily, as did Senator Dianne Feinstein who had run on a promise to crack down on immigration when she got back to Washington. It seemed to be a rousing success.

But while Republicans were high-fiving each other over their great victory, the court issued an immediate stay of the proposition and the Latino community in California began to protest and organize. And they also began, in great numbers, to vote Democratic. The fallout from Prop 187 and a few subsequent anti-immigrant proposals decimated the Republican Party in California. In 1994 the GOP held 26 of 52 (50 percent) U.S. House seats in the California delegation. Today they hold just 15 of 53 (28 percent). The Republican nominee has not won California in the last 6 presidential elections.

According to research by Latino Decisions this is why:

Prop 187 and the Pete Wilson years had two effects that shifted the state dramatically to the Democrats. First, the number of Latino voters grew quickly in response to perceived attacks on the Latino community. In comparison to other states that did not experience the same anti-immigrant environment such as Texas or New York, the research clearly demonstrates that Latino voter registration in California increased must faster than anticipated by population growth alone. Second, during the mid-1990s extensive research documents a increase in Latino votes for the Democratic party in California that was sustained throughout the 2000s. Not only did more Latinos start voting, they started voting heavily against the Republican Party.

Political observers tend to characterize the term "backlash" as applying to white voters upset by equal rights being extended to women and minorities. But California's experience shows that backlash can also come from minorities in reaction to bigotry. California's Latinos knew where the hostility was coming from and fully understood the political cynicism which led Republican politicians to exploit the prejudices of their voters and the result is that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is the only Republican to win a California gubernatorial, senatorial, or presidential election since 1994.

This lesson has not been lost on the national GOP. Having no chance to win the nation's largest bundle of electoral votes in California is an ongoing frustration. But the danger posed by a base that is hostile to the growing national Latino constituency is a problem of epic proportions -- the political equivalent of climate change. It's not that Latinos have the kind of electoral clout across the nation that they have in California as yet. But there are some very important states in which they are pivotal, like Nevada, Ohio, New Mexico, Virginia, Florida and Colorado. Indeed, won't be long before even Texas could become a challenge.

The GOP "autopsy" after the 2012 campaign was explicit on this point. As Florida GOP strategist Sally Bradshaw, one of the authors of the report said:

"The GOP is continually marginalizing itself and unless changes are made it will be increasingly difficult for Republicans to win another presidential election in the near future...Many minorities think Republicans don't like them or don't want them in our country."

Another said:

"If Hispanic Americans hear the GOP doesn't want them in the U.S.A.,they won't pay attention to our next sentence. It doesn't matter what we say about education, jobs or the economy. If Hispanics think we don't want them here, they will close their ears to our policies."

But the party's grassroots didn't care about any stinkin' autopsy report. They obstructed Comprehensive Immigration Reform and scare the hell out of any GOP office holder who seemed to even consider a path to citizenship. Just to make sure they were understood, they even took out the House majority leader, Eric Cantor, in 2014, for the crime of whispering one time that he thought some undocumented workers might someday be worthy of citizenship.

And then came Donald Trump with his wall and his deportation raids and his approval of "Operation Wetback" and his assertion that Mexico is "sending us their worst" and insisting that the undocumented workers are rapists and murderers. The rest of the field has followed with increasingly harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies. What was supposed to be a race between two youthful Hispanic Senators and a seasoned Spanish speaking ex-Governor who is married to a Mexican immigrant has turned into an ugly panderfest for the votes of bigots and xenophobes.

This week Trump outdid himself by releasing to great fanfare his first ad --- an homage to Pete Wilson's greatest hit: A grainy, black and white television spot showing people scurrying across the screen like insects. (The footage was of Morocco rather than the Mexican border, but nobody cares.) Ted Cruz followed with a more stylized, pretentious version of the same, pretending the issue is all about jobs and not about bigotry.

Nobody knows how this will play out in the election. It's always possible that the Democrats will fail to turn out the Latino vote in those places where it can make the difference. But you can also be pretty sure the Republicans won't be able to do it, and according to the autopsy report, they need to attract over 40 percent of the Latino vote nationally to win.

Meanwhile in California, Cruz and Trump are neck and neck in the polls. It's been 20 years and California Republicans still haven't learned their lesson. If the old saying, "How California goes, so goes the nation," has any truth in it today,  that means the national Republican Party may spend years in the wilderness before its voters realize this toxic anti-immigrant sentiment is killing them.

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By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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Aol_on California Donald Trump History Immigration Immigration Reform Pete Wilson Ted Cruz