There are many ways to illustrate the descent of the California Republican Party into oblivion. A starting point is the demographic breakdown of the members of Congress elected last week in the state.
Assuming the leaders in the few remaining close races hold their leads, there will be 38 Democrats and 15 Republicans representing California in Congress come January. Of those 38 Democrats, 18 are women, nine are Latinos, five are Asian Americans, three are African Americans, four are Jews and at least one is gay. Just 12 are white men. Of the 15 Republicans, on the other hand, all are white men — not a woman, let alone a member of a racial minority or a Jew, among them.
The composition of the state’s new Democratic congressional delegation merely reflects the state’s demographic changes. Latinos (72% of whom backed Obama) were 23% of the California electorate in 2012, up from 18% in 2008. The share of Asian voters (who voted for Obama at a 79% rate) doubled, from 6% to 12%, between those two elections. Voters under 30 increased their share of state ballots cast from 20% in 2008 to 27% in 2012, and backed Obama at a 71% rate. The state’s proportion of white voters, meanwhile, fell from 65% in 2004 to 63% in 2008 to just 55% last week.
More sentient Republicans now say the party needs to modify its position on immigration. But a deeper look into the politics of the increasingly young and multicolored electorate suggests that the GOP is estranged from this new America on more issues than just immigration. The exit polling on Proposition 30, the tax hike on the wealthy promoted by Gov. Jerry Brown to keep the state’s schools and universities from further disastrous budget cuts, shows key elements of the Democrats’ new majority consigning the old Howard-Jarvis-no-tax-hike California to history’s dustbin. Voters under 30 supported Proposition 30 at a 67% rate, and Asian Americans gave it 61% support.
Recent surveys from the Pew Foundation on Latinos and Asian Americans make clear that these growing constituencies don’t share conservatives’ belief that government is an impediment to economic growth. In a poll that Pew released in June, 55% of U.S. Asians preferred a bigger government that provided more services, while just 36% preferred a smaller government providing fewer services. Anyone who ponders why Asian Americans so overwhelmingly lean Democratic in this state should simply walk around a University of California campus, note the many thousands of Asian American students and ask them what they think of the Republican state legislators who have repeatedly refused to raise taxes on California’s wealthy, forcing the UCs and other state colleges to cut courses, raise tuition or both.
The press is full of stories recounting how national Republicans were surprised by the demographic changes that reduced the white share of the U.S. electorate to just 72% this year. The future, these stunned Republicans note, arrived early. But California Republicans have no such excuse. Politically, the future has been arriving here in every election year since 1998, when a labor-led effort flipped the increasingly Latino congressional and legislative districts in suburban L.A. County from Republican to Democratic. By 2012, labor’s efforts among Latinos reached into the onetime GOP bastion of inland California. Last week, Inland Empire voters sent three Democrats — two Latinos and one Asian — to Congress.
The political transformation of California is a story involving millions of people, but two Latino labor leaders played the most decisive roles. As the Latino backlash mounted against 1994’s Republican-backed Proposition 187 (which tried to deny all public services to undocumented immigrants), Miguel Contreras, who led the L.A. County AFL-CIO (and who died in 2005), and Eliseo Medina, a leader of the Service Employees International Union, instituted ambitious union programs in the mid-1990s to mobilize the state’s Latino voters — programs that have expanded over the years.
While still in their teens, in the 1960s, both Contreras and Medina had been inspired to take up both the union and the Latino cause by Cesar Chavez — the farmworkers’ leader who, visionary though he was, may not have envisioned just how far-reaching the political changes he set in motion would become. Last week, it became clear that his legacy, and that of his followers, includes a whole new California.
Harold Meyerson is editor at large of the American Prospect and an op-ed columnist for the Washington Post.