Why Riordan Can't Be Governor

Tony Quinn is co-editor of the "California Target Book," an analysis of California legislative and congressional campaigns

As L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan weighs a possible bid for the Republican nomination for governor of California, he might ponder an unpleasant fact: had the electorate he faced in 1993 been the same as the one in 2001, he probably would have lost.

California has undergone tremendous political change in the past eight years, a change driven by demographic shifts evident in the 2000 census. In 1993, for example, 72% of the L.A. electorate was white, 22% black and Latino. In 2001, only 52% is white, while 39% is black and Latino.

Virtually all the demographic change in the statewide electorate has worked to the disadvantage of California Republicans. Much is written about the rise of Latino voters. Equally important--and less noted--is the change within that electorate. When it was smaller, Republicans could, as Riordan did in 1993, capture about 40% of the Latino vote. Latino voters tended to be more middle class; many were second-and third-generation Californians.

The 1986 federal immigration act legalized some 1 million Latino immigrants here, who over the years have become citizens and voters. They are younger, more blue collar, more pro-union and much more loyally Democratic. While Republicans can still attract older Latinos, these are new voters, and it will be a while before the GOP can win them over.

The same thing has happened with white voters, who have declined as a percentage of California's electorate in each of the past few election cycles. A white electorate made up of aerospace workers and their families--solid Republicans--has been replaced by one composed of high-tech entrepreneurs, software designers and entertainment-industry employees: culturally liberal and open to voting Democratic.

Since 1996, state Republicans have agonized over what to do about the unfavorable demographic shifts, as each election cycle has proved worse than the last. Now the Bush administration has decided their fate for them. By all evidence, a high-level decision has been made that California is to be cut adrift, that state Republicans cannot be saved.

The most obvious piece of evidence is the administration's energy approach. Until prodded by frightened House Republicans into accepting some price controls, the Bush administration seemed to think that California could boil in the dark this summer. Its ham-handed approach has largely denied Republicans the partisan advantage they might have expected from the Democrats' handling of the mess.

The coup de grace for California Republicans is a less publicized Bush policy, one that potentially has longer and more dramatic political consequences. That is the decision to force California to use ethanol as a gasoline additive, which is sure to increase already-high prices at the pump. The administration refused a waiver request from Gov. Gray Davis, supported by the oil companies, to exempt the state from ethanol because the additive is not necessary to meet clean-air standards and because it costs too much.

The administration's ethanol decision runs counter to the states' rights philosophy so admired by Bush (can anyone believe the president would have refused a federal waiver request from Texas?), but it makes good short-term politics. Ethanol is made from corn, and three of the hottest U.S. Senate races next year will take place in the corn-growing states of Iowa, Missouri and Minnesota.

Additionally, the presidential race in all three states was close. Bush will try mightily to carry Iowa and Minnesota in 2004, and to repeat his win in Missouri. Critical to Republican chances in these states is a heavy GOP vote in rural areas. That means corn, and the politics of corn mean adding ethanol to gasoline sold in California.

This decision may have a greater political impact within California than the energy crisis because, unlike high electricity prices that hit only part of the state, higher gasoline prices affect what it means, in part, to be a Californian: driving an automobile. The political ads almost write themselves: "Bush raises your gas prices as payoff to Iowa farmers." The ethanol decision is a federally imposed gas-tax increase, the very thing Republicans are supposed to be against.

The administration should take care, though, that its apparent anti-California campaign doesn't go too far. Although the GOP lost four California House seats last year, 20 Republicans still serve in the lower chamber. At least eight of them could lose their seats in 2002 if national Republicans keep up the California-be-damned drumbeat.

Democrat Al Gore carried three of the 20 GOP-held districts in the 2000 presidential election. Gore plus Green candidate Ralph Nader ran virtually even with Bush in another three districts. Redistricting, under the complete control of Democrats, could weaken additional GOP incumbents.

There is a precedent for the danger that national Republcians may be courting. In governing, Bush and Cheney have played to their conservative base just as former President Bill Clinton, Gore and Hillary Rodham Clinton pandered to their liberal base in the first two years of their administration. The Clinton administration's ultra-liberalism cost Democrats both houses of Congress in 1994, and decimated the party in several solidly Democratic Southern states.

Republicans won three Democratic House seats in Georgia in 1994, and took another through a party switch. Since 1994, no white Democrat has represented Georgia in the House. In Kentucky, the GOP knocked off two of the state's four Democrats; in Gore's Tennessee, Republicans took both U.S. Senate seats from the Democrats and gained two House seats. In North Carolina, they won four Democratic House seats.

In just these four Southern and border states, whose combined congressional delegations total less than California's 53 districts in 2002, Republicans won 12 Democratic House seats when the voters turned against Clinton in 1994. Like California, these states had drifted away from longstanding political moorings, and 1994 was the catalyst for the final break. Bad as the past three election cycles have been for California Republicans, 2002 could be worse.

If these political trends continue in California, and the Bush administration sticks with its energy policy, it might be said of Riordan's quest for governor, why bother?

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