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Republican losses show Inland Empire’s political shift

The biggest victory for Democrats may be in the Coachella Valley, where Democratic emergency-room doctor Raul Ruiz unseated 14-year incumbent Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Palm Springs).
(Associated Press)

Stirred by a decade of astronomical growth, economic heartache and the rising political influence of Latinos, the Inland Empire proved treacherous territory last week for a Republican Party that just a decade ago considered it the new GOP frontier.

Voters in Riverside and San Bernardino counties on Tuesday elected three Democrats to Congress — two Latinos and a gay Asian American — after having sent only two Democrats to Washington in the last four decades.

Before the election, Republicans represented the city of Riverside in Congress, the state Senate and the Assembly. On Tuesday, Democrats took all three seats.

The rumblings of an impending seismic shift in Inland Empire politics have been heard for years, with pressure slowly building as the GOP’s share of voters declined. California’s new political boundaries, crafted last year, allowed pent-up Democratic power to push to the surface and reshape a political landscape that’s now more evenly divided. Contests will be much harder to predict.

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“The Inland Empire was the third bastion for the GOP after Orange County and San Diego,” said Shaun Bowler, a political scientist from UC Riverside. “That’s not true anymore, which is a worry for the Republican Party. They’ve got to work harder than they have in the past.”

Tuesday’s election results showed that the GOP is far from dead, however, especially in areas such as Temecula, Corona and the high desert. And a conservative streak still runs through the region’s electorate.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s $6-billion-a-year tax initiative, Proposition 30, won statewide but lost in both Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney won Riverside County. San Bernardino voters sided with President Obama, but by only 5 percentage points, compared with Obama’s 20-point victory statewide.

In 2010, voters in both counties favored Republican Meg Whitman over Brown in the gubernatorial race and Republican Carly Fiorina over Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) for the U.S. Senate. Most of the Inland Empire still is represented by Republicans in Congress.

“It’s certainly more conservative than Marin County or Los Angeles, but demographic changes are killing Republicans,” said Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga, a former leader of the state Senate’s Republicans, who is now a consultant. “The trend you’re seeing in the Inland Empire is no different than the trends everywhere in the state.”

A decade ago, a plurality of registered voters in both Riverside and San Bernardino counties were Republican. Democrats now claim a slim plurality in San Bernardino County. In Riverside County, the GOP’s 13-point registration advantage has dwindled to 4.5 points. The share of independent voters in both counties has soared.

That trend away from the GOP was accelerated by mushrooming growth. The Inland Empire’s population jumped by nearly 1 million between 2000 and 2010, census figures show. Accounting for more than three-quarters of that rise were Latinos, who as a group tend to vote for Democrats and now make up almost half of the 4.2 million people living in the two counties.

Democrats had expected to make major inroads in the Inland Empire 10 years ago. Brulte said that was blunted by a deal cut by Republicans and Democrats in Sacramento to ensure that the 2001 redistricting process protected incumbents. (After that remapping, 264 of 265 congressional elections in California were won by the incumbent party.)

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“The reason I agreed to that deal was that I was skeptical of the Republicans’ ability to win competitive seats,” Brulte said.

That went out the window when California voters in 2010 stripped the Legislature of the power to draw congressional and legislative districts and gave the task to an independent, bipartisan commission. The goal was to bind communities by geography and common interests rather than to protect longtime incumbents.

“The citizens commission gave us competitive seats, and the Republicans have lost almost all of them,” Brulte said.

The new boundaries gave Democrats an edge in registered voters in three Inland Empire congressional races and parity with the GOP in a fourth.

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Democrat Mark Takano, a high school teacher, jumped into the race for the 41st Congressional District, which includes Riverside and Moreno Valley, and on Tuesday edged out Republican County Supervisor John Tavaglione. It was Takano’s third try — he narrowly lost to Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona) in 1992 and 1994, when the district was solidly Republican and snaked into Orange County.

This time, 20 years had passed since he first knocked on voters’ doors, and he could see the changing face of the electorate.

“It’s grown more diverse, and it’s young,” Takano said. “There are a lot of new, young families.”

Takano, who is openly gay, said he also was pleasantly surprised that his sexual orientation didn’t become a campaign issue. That too showed how the area had changed, he said, because a “homophobic attack” in a district that includes a plurality of Democrats, albeit a slim one, almost certainly would have backfired.

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In the Inland Empire’s safest Democratic seat, state Sen. Gloria Negrete McLeod of Chino beat a fellow Democrat, Rep. Joe Baca of Rialto. Baca has been the sole Democratic congressman in the Inland Empire since 1999, when he replaced Democratic Rep. George Brown, who died while in office.

The biggest victory for Democrats may be in the Coachella Valley, where Democratic emergency-room doctor Raul Ruiz unseated 14-year incumbent Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Palm Springs). Ruiz credited his strong showing in part to a series of Democratic voter registration efforts, especially among Latinos.

“We worked hard to register as many people as possible,” Ruiz said. “Our community is becoming more and more diverse, and everyone wants to be included.”

The Democrats failed to capture a fourth congressional seat in a district that stretches from Redlands to Rancho Cucamonga. Redlands Mayor Pete Aguilar, a Democrat, was bested in the primary by two Republicans — state Sen. Bob Dutton of Rancho Cucamonga and Rep. Gary Miller of Diamond Bar — despite a Democratic edge in voter registration.

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Miller won the seat Tuesday but should expect a strong, well-funded challenge from Democrats in 2014.

phil.willon@latimes.com

For the latest California election results, go to latimes.com/electionresults and latimes.com/socalresults.

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