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California Latino Republicans see Prop. 187's ghost in Trump's campaign

California Latino Republicans see Prop. 187's ghost in Trump's campaign
Latino GOP leaders in California are worried that Donald Trump's proposals to crack down on illegal immigration and his tone will undo their efforts to repair the relationship between Latino voters and the Republican party. (Associated Press)

Latino leaders in California working to mend the GOP's relationship with their community were filled with dread, not joy, as Donald Trump clinched their party's nomination for the presidency.

The businessman's campaign, staked on a hard-line approach and incendiary rhetoric about illegal immigration, threatened to unravel the progress they've made to repair a schism created by a 1994 ballot measure that sought to deny taxpayer-funded services to those in the country illegally.

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The state GOP lost a generation of Latino voters in the aftermath of that ballot measure, Proposition 187. And now Latino Republicans fear they will lose yet another generation as a result of Trump becoming the standard-bearer of their party.

"I am concerned, and I'm saddened, and I'm bewildered," said Luis Alvarado, a GOP media strategist who, like many other Latino officials in California, said he will not vote for Trump. "We had fought for every inch in changing the minds and hearts of not just fellow Latinos, but also fellow Republicans in understanding how we need to work together. And Trump comes along and everything just gets pushed aside."

The Republican Party's problem with Latino voters predate Trump because of the party's stance on immigration. GOP strategists often say that Latinos may agree with the party on social and economic issues but won't listen to their pitch if they believe Republicans want to deport their family members.

In California, there are 4.1 million registered Latino voters, with 55% registered as Democrats, 16% Republican and 25% having no party preference.

Trump insists that Latinos "love" him, but polling does not bear that out. A Fox News poll in May found Latino voters favored Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton over Trump 62% to 23%.

Many have had a visceral reaction to Trump's proposals that include deporting 11 million people and building an enormous border wall. Protests greet Trump whenever he holds rallies in California.

When former Downey Mayor Mario Guerra was wrongly listed as a Trump delegate, the Republican received many angry emails and phone calls from his constituents, accusing him of being disloyal to his ethnicity.

"People said, 'You're betraying your people. What are you thinking?''' said Guerra, who is treasurer of the California Republican Party.

It was a particular affront because Guerra is among a number of Latino Republicans who have been working for years to improve his party's relationship with his community. In recent years, they had begun to see some successes.

In September, the state GOP voted to soften the immigration language in its party platform. Republican legislators have called on their counterparts in Washington, D.C., to pass comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship for those in the country illegally. The party's standard-bearer in the 2014 gubernatorial election also supported comprehensive immigration reform. A group co-founded by Guerra has helped elect more than 100 Latino Republicans to local offices throughout California.

Hector Barajas, a Republican strategist, said Trump's candidacy will make them redouble their efforts to recruit and train Latino candidates.

"Our message to folks is, look, you're going to have to create your own Republican party, create your own organizations within your own community," said Barajas, who says he will not vote for his party's nominee and plans to hoist a Trump pinata at his daughter's birthday party in August.

Others worried that any goodwill that has been earned in recent years is at stake because of Trump.

"The unfortunate part is that right as the specter of Prop. 187 was disappearing in the rear-view mirror, we are now seeing the rise of a new generational problem for the Republican Party," said Mike Madrid, a Republican expert on Latino voting trends.

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He and others were optimistic at the start of the presidential campaign.

The national GOP appeared to recognize their problem with Latino voters in the aftermath of the 2012 election, when party leaders put out a report that said the party's future successes depended in part on tamping down heated rhetoric about illegal immigration and improving how Latinos viewed the GOP.

Some of the Republicans who ran in the 2016 race made efforts to court Latinos —  former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, for example, spoke Spanish in his campaign kick-off speech and talked frequently on the trail about his Mexican-born wife.

That message of inclusion did not resonate with voters or Trump as he romped to victories in primaries and caucuses, in part by appealing to disaffected working-class white male voters by pounding on illegal immigration.

The day he announced his candidacy, he said Mexico was sending its drug dealers and rapists to the United States. He campaigned alongside some of the most strident voices in the debate over immigration, including Arizona's Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and former Gov. Jan Brewer.

Trump's first ad featured footage of immigrants scurrying over a border and ominous music. The imagery and the tone were startlingly similar to an infamous pro-Proposition 187 ad in California that had a tagline, "They keep coming," that is seared into the memory of many Latinos in the state.

Ruben Barrales, a former San Mateo County supervisor and member of George W. Bush's administration, experienced déjà vu when he saw Trump's ad.

"I'm hearing the music and that's taking me back to 1994," he said, adding that the decades-old ad offered a "cautionary tale. It was successful — 187 passed — and it showed appealing to fears and anxieties can win elections. But at what cost are Republicans willing to win one election cycle but potentially lose a generation of Latino voters?"

He urged national Republicans to look at what happened to the state GOP in California in the aftermath of Proposition 187. "We can win the battle but lose the long-term war," he said.

The ballot measure was championed by California Republicans, notably then-Gov. Pete Wilson, and overwhelmingly approved by voters. It was later largely nullified by the courts, but since then, voter registration data in California show how badly the party has faltered among Latino voters.

In presidential elections before the measure's passage, Republicans received one-third or more of the Latino vote in California, according to a study by Latino Decisions. Ronald Reagan hit a high-water mark with 45% in his 1984 reelection.

But after the ballot measure, Latinos steadily stopped voting for Republicans at the same time as their numbers grew. By the 2012 election, only 22% supported Mitt Romney.

The lack of support from Latinos is among the reasons the state GOP last elected a candidate statewide a decade ago, and the party's registration has dwindled to 27.5% of voters in the state.

"It's a preview of coming attractions" for the national GOP, Madrid said. "I've seen this story. I know how it ends, and it's not good."

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