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California went its own way

In one declarative night, California on Tuesday confirmed its status as a political world unto itself, zigging determinedly Democratic while most of the rest of the country zagged Republican. Voters not only restored the governor’s office to Democratic hands, they may have given Democrats a sweep of statewide offices, though uncounted ballots could still shift one race.

Driving much of the success -- and distancing the state from the national GOP tide, according to exit polls -- was a surge in Latino voters. They made up 22% of the California voter pool, a record tally that mortally wounded many Republicans.

Latinos were more likely than other voters to say it was the governor’s race that impelled them to vote, and they sided more than 2 to 1 with Democrat Jerry Brown over Meg Whitman, the Republican whose campaign had been embroiled in a controversy over illegal immigration. Once at the polls, they voted for other Democrats as well.

California Republicans had multiple reasons for head-shaking on Wednesday. For decades, the state party has squabbled over whether success would come more easily to candidates running as conservatives or those who presented a more moderate face to the state’s sizeable bloc of independent, centrist voters. This year they tried both. Senate candidate Carly Fiorina ran a firmly conservative race and Whitman took a more moderate road.

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Holding their coastal strength, Democrats ran away with their big counties. Brown carried Los Angeles County, home to 25% of the state’s voters, by 31 points, giving him almost 60% of his lead. Republican candidates, including Whitman, did better than Democrats in their traditional interior California strongholds. But the strong Republican counties tend to be heavier on acreage than voters.

On Tuesday each hit a double-digit dead end, as Fiorina lost to Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer and Whitman came in a distant second to Brown.

Democratic successes in the midst of 2010’s national Republican renaissance marked a sharp turnabout from how the state behaved during the last major Republican year, in 1994. That year, as Republicans took back Congress, they won in California as well, picking up five of seven statewide offices, including the governorship, and adding legislative seats. This time, Democrats picked up a legislative seat despite Republican gains nationally, and were waiting for uncounted ballots to see whether they lost a congressional seat or two.

The difference between then and now rests on the changes in the California electorate. Those changes also explain the gulf that now exists between California and the nation. California in 1994 was more white and proportionately less Democratic than it is today, thus more similar to the country today. Nationally, non-whites made up only 22% of the Tuesday electorate; in California they made up 38%. Latinos nationally represented 8% of the national electorate, just shy of a third of their power in California. The California and national exit polls were conducted by Edison Research for a consortium of news organizations, including television news networks and the Associated Press.

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Tellingly, Latinos in California had a far more negative view of the GOP than other voters -- almost 3 in 4 had an unfavorable impression, to 22% favorable. Among all California voters the view of Republicans was negative, but at a closer 61% negative and 32% positive. Latinos had a strongly positive view of Democrats, 58% to 37%, whereas all voters were closely split, 49% to 45%.

“The brand name is still a tremendous liability,” said Allan Hoffenblum, a former Republican consultant who runs a nonpartisan election-tracking publication. “People of color are just turned off by the Republican Party.”

Despite their efforts to appeal to Latinos, Whitman and Fiorina came under fire throughout the campaign for their views on illegal immigration. Fiorina supported Arizona’s anti-illegal immigrant law. Whitman, while opposing that measure, was pressed in her primary into talking about how she would be “tough as nails” toward illegal immigrants. The closing month of the campaign featured a controversy over Whitman’s firing of her illegal immigrant housekeeper; shortly before the election she said she favored the woman’s deportation.

Not surprisingly, Latino voters drawn to the polls because of the governor’s race went lopsidedly for Brown, 73% to 18%.

State Republican Party Chairman Ron Nehring said the election results confirmed that party leaders and candidates needed to build stronger relationships with non-whites, and not just before an election.

“The reality is that Democrats have strong relationships with urban and immigration communities that Republicans have not had, and that must change,” he said. “It is not only a matter of politics; it is a matter of mathematics.”

But Nehring stressed that he was not advocating a change in Republican policy. “Republicans have stressed for decades that we support legal immigration and oppose illegal immigration,” he said. “Despite saying that, that message has not resonated. It is not only a matter of how we talk about this issue, but how other people hear us.”

Views of the parties appeared strongly entrenched in California, however. Tellingly, the biggest vote-getter among Republicans was attorney general nominee Steve Cooley, who came into the race from a nonpartisan post as Los Angeles County’s district attorney and took pains Tuesday night to de-emphasize his party membership. Even with that, he was narrowly trailing Democrat Kamala Harris in a race so close it may not be decided for many days.

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As election day dawned, Democrats outnumbered Republicans in California by 2.3 million voters, a gap that has been growing. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was able to pull significantly from Democratic-leaning groups, including independent voters and women, but Tuesday’s candidates were not able to replicate that success.

Brown, for example, drew 600,000 more votes than the 2006 Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Phil Angelides. But Whitman drew 1.8 million fewer votes than Schwarzenegger had in 2006.

A persistent problem for Republicans in California, but an accelerant for them nationally, were views about Obama. Nationally he had a negative job-approval rating; in California, that flipped to a positive rating by 10 points. The results suggest that while Obama may not throw as large a shadow as he did with his record victory in California in 2008, he remains a formidable candidate in the state for 2012.

Asked whether Tuesday’s results suggested that Republicans would simply cede the state in 2012, Nehring demurred. “I think it is premature to make that determination,” he said.

But other Republicans suggested that their best chance for relevance in two years would be a continuation of the unsettled national environment that did not quite reach the California state line.

“You never say never,” said Hoffenblum. “Who would have predicted two years ago that Barack Obama and the Democrats would have crashed as quickly as they did? The temperature of the times is not normal.”

cathleen.decker@latimes.com


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