On immigration, California offers a cautionary note for the national GOP

California long has been considered a trendsetter. And right now, that should be worrying the Republican Party.

Things often happen here first. Auto smog controls. Taxpayer rebellion. The fight against climate change.

California also is where the Republican Party virtually destroyed itself by scaring Latinos while bashing illegal immigration.

Like GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump has been doing.

One of his main rivals, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, sounds almost as insulting. And none of the party's White House wannabes is exactly Reaganesque.

This is what Ronald Reagan — the revered Republican icon — had to say about Mexican migrants during a 1980 primary debate with George H.W. Bush:

"Rather than talking about putting up a fence, [we should] make it possible [for Mexicans] to come here legally. … It's the only safety valve right now they have with [their high] unemployment."

Reagan and Bush had been asked by someone in the audience whether the children of "illegal aliens" should be allowed to attend public schools. Bush answered first:

"If those people are here," he said, they should "get what their neighbors get." He added: "These are honorable, decent, family-loving people.... Good people, strong people, part of our family" and making their "6- to 8-year-old kids totally uneducated" is wrong.

That portrait is the opposite of the one Trump painted of Mexicans migrating illegally. "Rapists," drug dealers and violent criminals, he called them last year, adding that only "some, I assume, are good people."

"I can't imagine Trump giving an inaugural speech," says Ken Khachigian, a longtime GOP strategist who wrote Reagan's first swearing-in address. "I can't place him there, putting that mantle of dignity on him, looking out over those monuments."

As president, Reagan signed legislation granting amnesty to immigrants here illegally. These days, Republican presidential candidates consider "amnesty" a dirty word.

They, especially Trump, are making the old California GOP rhetoric sound like a Sunday sermon.

While running for reelection in 1994, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson crusaded for Proposition 187, which denied most government services — including schooling — to immigrants here illegally. Voters passed the measure overwhelmingly. But the federal courts later ruled it unconstitutional.

The ugliest part of the pro-187 campaign was a TV ad that showed grainy news footage of a group of people running north across a U.S.-Mexico border checkpoint. It proclaimed in a doomsday, Darth Vader tone: "They keep coming."

Yes, they did. Straight to the voter registrar — at least their citizen cousins and sisters did. And they turned against Republicans.

Since 1994, more than 3 million Latinos have been added to the voter rolls, according to Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data Inc.

Latinos make up 23% of the California electorate. And their share will only climb. They now account for roughly 40% of the population. As voters, Mitchell says, they're aligned 54% Democrat, 24% independent, 17% Republican.

"Although many were probably only 6 or 8 years old when Prop. 187 passed," Mitchell says, "it still lingers with them, as well as with people who weren't even born then."

California has basically changed its 1990s view: A poll released Wednesday by the Public Policy Institute of California found that 78% of likely voters believe people here illegally should be allowed to stay "if certain requirements are met"; 61% consider immigrants a benefit to the state.

It might seem preposterous to think that the Republican Party nationally could be sent tumbling downhill by rhetoric insensitive to Latinos, especially given its strong control of Congress and domination of statehouses.

But consider this: 22 years ago, California reelected a Republican governor and chose GOP candidates for four of its other six statewide partisan offices. Republicans also won a slim majority in the state Assembly. Today, no statewide elected official is a Republican. And Democrats outnumber the GOP nearly 2 to 1 in each legislative house.

During a 40-year stretch of presidential elections, Republicans carried California nine out of 10 times. But since 1992, we have been solidly blue.

In 1994, Republicans were 37% of the registered voters. Today they're 28%. Democrats also have fallen, from 49% to 43%. Independents have gained the most, from 10% to 23%, largely among young Latinos.

The GOP should be especially leery of following California's path in western states — particularly in Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Texas — where Latino populations are growing.

"If Republicans aren't careful," says veteran GOP consultant Rob Stutzman, "they could essentially lose the entire West."

"Texas is going to go from a red state to a blue state in the next 10 years," predicts Stu Spencer, Reagan's top political strategist. "Look at the numbers."

To the California GOP's credit, its candidates have significantly tempered their anti-illegal immigration demagoguery in the last five years. And they have tried to lay off the social issues — principally abortion — that turned many libertarian-minded Californians against them.

But now comes Trump, who also has bellowed about barring all Muslims from entering the country. Not just terrorists, but anyone of that religion.

"It's the height of constitutional absurdity," Stutzman says. "Unless Trump is broadly condemned by the party, he could have a hugely damaging effect."

Mike Madrid, the grandson of Mexican immigrants who is a Republican consultant, puts it this way: "The party that began with Lincoln may end with Trump. That would be a sad American story."

If there's any California trend that Republicans nationally should follow, it's the recent calming of rhetoric.


Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 28, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "A GOP misfire on immigration - CAPITOL JOURNAL" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe