Only yesterday, or so it seems, California was Reagan Country, and the dependable western anchor of the Republican party’s successful Sun Belt strategy. Until 1992, every GOP presidential nominee in the second half of the century carried California except for Barry Goldwater in the Lyndon Johnson landslide of 1964. When Gray Davis routed Dan Lungren in 1998, he became only the fourth Democrat this century to win the California governorship.
That was then and this is now. In 1992, Bill Clinton defeated President George Bush by a plurality, with an assist from Ross Perot. In 1996, Clinton won a majority on his own. Then in 1998, with two-term Republican governor Pete Wilson ineligible to succeed himself, the bottom dropped out for the GOP. State attorney general Lungren, a conservative who had been expected to mount a strong campaign, lost by 20 percentage points. State treasurer Matt Fong blew a mid- campaign lead in the U.S. Senate race and lost by 10 points to Barbara Boxer, the supposedly vulnerable liberal Democratic incumbent. The Republicans also suffered disastrous state-legislative losses with potential national consequences. After the 2000 census, a Democratic-controlled legislature is likely to pass a redistricting bill that could cost the GOP several House seats and perhaps even control of that chamber.
What happened? How did California become Clinton Country? And how did Lungren, whom National Review dubbed “the great right hope,” suffer such a one-sided loss? Defeat in California is a disputatious orphan. Here are the favorite theories and alibis:
Republican moderates, among others, blame conservatives for emphasizing social issues in a state that resists government curbs on abortion, marijuana, and pornography. “California has a strong libertarian streak,” observes Rep. David Dreier, an influential conservative. Lungren, who in the House had sponsored the Human Life Amendment, lost among pro-choice independents, and women. Afterward, his campaign manager Dave Puglia declared that it is impossible for a pro-life candidate to win a statewide election.
Conservatives insist that moderates, especially Wilson, bear a chunk of the blame. They claim that activist social conservatives were shunned during the Wilson years, a point that would have greater force had these conservatives turned out for Lungren. Wilson also enhanced what libertarian conservative Ron Unz calls the “toxic effect” of Proposition 187, an initiative approved by voters in 1994 but since blocked by the courts. The measure would have denied educational and most medical benefits only to illegal immigrants, but the somewhat derisive tone of Wilson’s campaign in its behalf suggested to legal immigrants an attack on them as well. Lungren paid the price in 1998, winning only a fifth of Latino voters and about a fourth of Asians.
Some political analysts say that Democrats simply have run better campaigns. That was certainly true in 1992, when Bush seemed unaware of the distress of middle-class Californians after the collapse of the aerospace industry at the end of the Cold War. It was true again in 1996, when Bob Dole failed to connect with voters. Lungren’s 1998 campaign was even more inept. He wasted time and resources in a futile attempt to link Davis to former governor Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown, whom Davis had served as chief of staff. The result was described at campaign’s end by Bill Carrick, a savvy Democratic consultant: “A Los Angeles Times poll showed that more people approved of Jerry Brown than Lungren. Others vaguely associate him with Jerry’s Deli or Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, and in Oakland, where he’s mayor, they like him.”
It is worth noting that Brown won, in a liberal city, by promising to improve police protection and school performance and bring new business to Oakland. With few exceptions, California Democrats in the 1990s have followed Clinton’s lead in using centrist slogans and symbols to expropriate popular positions of their adversaries. Davis stressed support for the death penalty and California’s three-strikes law and the need to reform the state’s dismal educational system- traditional Republican themes. Davis also did what Clinton (and Lungren) could not do-cite his service in the Vietnam War, where he served as an Army captain and won a Bronze Star. “Davis is Clinton without the scandals,” said state senator Jim Brulte, a cerebral Republican who contends that the Democratic approach shows that conservatives have won the war of ideas.
Finally, some demographers argue that the tide of history is running against Republicans no matter what they do. Republican analyst Tony Quinn notes that the recession of the early 1990s prompted Republicans and Reagan Democrats to move in droves from California to other western states, which became more conservative while California was becoming more liberal. Demographic determinists also point to an increase of minority voters, particularly Latinos, who were 8 percent of the electorate in 1994 and 14 percent in 1998. They are projected to be a third of voters by 2010. If Latinos and Asians vote on their 1998 pattern, observed Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton, “it doesn’t take much imagination to envision California going the way of Hawaii-dominated perpetually by Democrats.”
All these analyses have something to recommend them, and they are not mutually exclusive. Puglia’s view that pro-life candidates cannot win in California may be overwrought, but they undoubtedly face an uphill fight. And Wilson’s campaign for Proposition 187, and to some degree the initiative itself, unquestionably alienated Latinos. There is also no doubt that California Democrats have run better campaigns than their GOP counterparts, with the exceptions of Wilson’s two campaigns for governor.
Should Republicans concede the state to the Democrats in 2000? This won’t happen and shouldn’t. Demographics and Democrats deserve their due, but all is not lost for Republicans in California. Before examining the potential for a GOP comeback, let us take a closer look at “Reagan Country,” in which the salient features of the political landscape were different than they seem in memory.
Ronald Reagan came along when middle-class Americans felt stifled by the Great Society, angered at campus disturbances and ghetto riots and worried about U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Reagan had the advantage of being a political outsider. The party he sought to inspire and lead had been divided by the bitter 1964 California primary in which Barry Goldwater clinched the GOP nomination by narrowly defeating Nelson Rockefeller. Goldwater was subsequently demonized and defeated, while Reagan became a national political figure with a stirring televised speech in the nominee’s behalf on October 27, 1964. Johnson carried California by a million votes, and Reagan was given little chance of winning the governorship in 1966. Strategists for incumbent governor Edmund G. (Pat) Brown were so convinced that Reagan was their salvation that they smeared his primary opponent, former San Francisco mayor George Christopher, to help Reagan win the primary. Christopher, meanwhile, attacked Reagan as a “Goldwater Republican” and sure loser.
Be careful what you wish for, as the old saying has it. Reagan took as his mantra the Eleventh Commandment of Gaylor Parkinson, the state GOP chairman of the day: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” He won the primary, then sought and obtained the endorsement of Christopher and other moderates. Reagan’s foes alternately portrayed him as an extremist and an unqualified actor who had been upstaged by a chimpanzee in Bedtime for Bonzo. The first attack failed because it was inaccurate and the second because it was irrelevant. (Reagan told me years later that he had indeed been upstaged by Bonzo, as humans tend to be by animals.) Reagan was proud to be an actor. After winning in a landslide, he was asked what kind of governor he would be: “I don’t know. I’ve never played a governor.”
The role suited Reagan, although it took many rehearsals. During his first year in office he agreed to a larger-than-necessary tax increase. Subsequently Reagan tried with some success to curb the growth of government. He was a practical dreamer who chipped away at the status quo. Reagan’s conservatism was tempered by the political reality of having a Republican majority in both houses of the legislature in only one of his eight years as governor. But Democrats respected him politically because he could mobilize public opinion and personally because he rarely took himself too seriously and always kept his word. In his second term, Reagan negotiated an artful compromise with Democrats that raised the grants of the neediest welfare recipients while cracking down on welfare fraud. He set aside more parklands than any other governor in California history and stopped the Army Corps of Engineers from building a high dam that would have flooded magnificent Round Valley on the state’s northern coast. He signed an abortion-rights bill that was backed by a majority of Republican legislators, including an assemblyman named George Deukmejian who would be elected to the first of two terms as governor two years after Reagan became president.
Reagan and Deukmejian were the only leaders that the land of memory called Reagan Country ever knew. Politically, they were invincible. Each won ten elections for various offices, if Reagan’s four presidential-primary victories are included. It is because of their success-and, to be fair, the success of Pete Wilson-that California acquired an inflated reputation as a Republican bastion. In reality the state has been in near-balance for four decades, with a slight edge to the Democrats except in those elections when Republicans have fielded superior candidates. After Reagan, Jerry Brown won back-to-back victories in gubernatorial races against GOP moderates. Wilson, who upset Brown in a 1982 Senate race and won reelection, is the only Republican elected to the U.S. Senate from California since 1976. Republicans have controlled both houses of the state legislature only once in 40 years and usually not either house. Reagan Country came into existence because of Reagan. It vanished into the mists when Deukmejian left office in 1991.
Today, as Republicans again seek a unifying leader, it is often said that a conservative cannot carry California. If so, that’s good news for Democrats. Conservatives firmly control the California GOP, as they demonstrated at a recent state convention where a moderate challenge to the leadership was soundly rejected. The “rock star” of the convention, as the Los Angeles Times put it, was Rep. James Rogan, fresh from the impeachment wars. He is in trouble in his San Gabriel Valley district, less because of impeachment than because of demographic changes. Rogan is being urged to run for the Senate in 2000 against the formidable Dianne Feinstein; the GOP nomination is probably his for the asking if he does.
The Senate race aside, the question remains whether the GOP presidential nominee can carry California in 2000. It is an important question, for it is difficult to see how the Republicans can regain the White House if they lose California. Steve Merksamer, who ran Deukmejian’s gubernatorial campaigns and was his chief of staff, disputes the conventional notion that a conservative cannot carry the state. But he believes that only a conservative who displays the “tolerance and inclusion” and the “generous nature” of Reagan and Deukmejian can indeed win.
There were several occasions where Reagan and Deukmejian departed from conservative orthodoxy on matters of conscience. Homosexual behavior was a highly charged issue in California in the Reagan years. Early in his governorship, Reagan’s administration was rocked by an overblown “homosexual scandal” involving key aides. Later, Reagan introduced conjugal visits into California’s prisons after being told they would reduce homosexual assaults. In 1978, a fringe conservative named John Briggs qualified a ballot initiative to bar homosexuals from teaching in public schools. Reagan, out of office and gearing up for his 1980 presidential run, was advised to say that the issue was a matter for voters to decide, a dodge used by many Republicans that year. But Reagan believed that teachers, like everyone else, should be judged on the basis of their conduct rather than their lifestyle. He opposed the Briggs initiative, assuring its defeat.
Deukmejian, who had been raised on stories of the Armenian genocide and was deeply offended by apartheid, decided in 1986 to divest California’s investments in South Africa. He signed a bill by liberal Maxine Waters, then a state legislator, to accomplish this purpose. In 1989, after a massacre of children at a Stockton school, Deukmejian signed another Democratic bill intended to ban assault weapons.
George W. arrives
California conservatives yearn for another Reagan or Deukmejian. After the calamity of the 1998 election, they searched beyond the state’s borders and found George W. Bush, the Texas governor who calls himself a “compassionate conservative.” Whether Bush is a long-distance runner remains to be seen, but he meets the “tolerant and inclusionary” test. He is also personable, in the manner of Reagan, a quality that often matters in California. In January, a majority of Republican state legislators urged Bush to run. In March, he was endorsed by 19 of the state’s 24 GOP House members. Two aspects of the Bush groundswell are notable: its breadth and the high degree of enthusiasm by conservative officeholders. House supporters range from John Doolittle on the right to Steve Horn, a true moderate. Dreier heads the California House members committed to Bush. Another Bush backer is assemblyman Bruce Thompson, who has strong ties to the Christian Right and is California’s most conservative legislator.
There is no mystery about the reason for the Bush boom. “Losing is a great unifier,” says Brulte, “and Republicans of every description lost in 1998.” Dreier says that California Republicans have a “thirst to win” and that Bush is the likeliest winner. Merksamer, who has not endorsed anyone, says Californians prefer westerners and that Bush projects a “western image like Goldwater and Reagan did.” Quinn notes that Davis carried 15 legislative districts now represented by Republicans, some of whom will be forced out by the state’s term- limits law in 2000. Without a strong presidential candidate, several of these districts could be lost.
Bush appeals to endangered Republicans because he is a proven winner in a populous and diverse state with many similar characteristics to California, including a high-tech industry, an export-based economy, and significant numbers of Hispanics (called Latinos in California). The latter point is crucial, because Bush received roughly half of the Hispanic vote in Texas when he was reelected last year. Reagan and Deukmejian obtained 40 percent or more of a much smaller Latino vote, as well as a majority of Asians. A repeat of Lungren’s showing among Latinos in 2000 would translate into a million-vote margin for Democrats in California, too much to overcome in other constituencies.
Solving the Latino equation will not be easy for the GOP in California even if Bush is the nominee. As Unz observes, alienation from the GOP runs deep among immigrants, abetted by changes in federal law that make it easier to deport legal immigrants for minor and long-ago offenses. But Democrats may suffer a backlash if they overdraw the portrait of the GOP as “nativist” and anti-Latino, particularly since Wilson has decided not to run for president. A. G. Block, editor of the nonpartisan California Journal, says, “With Wilson out of the picture, Democrats could go too far with this. My sense is that people are tired of the issue.”
Politics is a contest between people as well as policies, and Bush presently has an advantage over Gore. A recent survey commissioned by GOP consultant Joe Shumate gave Bush a 51-43 lead over Gore in California. Significantly, Bush led across the Republican spectrum and also among independents. The latter point could be crucial. Politics has changed since Reagan’s day, and the “kids of Reagan Democrats,” as Shumate calls them, are now apt to be registered as “decline to state,” the California equivalent of independent, or in a minor party.