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For Republicans, Wedge Issues Brought Out Their Enemies

November 10, 1996|Tony Quinn | Tony Quinn, vice president of Ketchum Public Relations, worked for Robert T. Monagan, the Republican speaker in 1969-70 and briefly for Doris Allen when she was speaker in 1995

SACRAMENTO — A quarter century ago, Republicans controlled the Assembly by a two-vote margin for one term, losing it in the next election and remaining in the political wilderness until 1994. Now it has happened again. How did the state GOP manage to repeat history?

In her account of World War I, "The Guns of August," Barbara Tuchman writes of the ostensibly inconsequential shift of two German corps to the Eastern front, a transfer that subsequently cost the Germans victory in the Battle of the Marne. So it happened to the Republicans this election, when $2 million was foolishly shifted into a television campaign promoting Proposition 209, the anti-affirmative-action initiative. That was $2 million unavailable to counter an onslaught of Democratic money in key legislative races, money that could have made the difference.

The story of the GOP's setback can be partly gleaned from the results in three state Senate races--one in the San Gabriel Valley, one in the South Bay and Long Beach, and another in coastal San Diego--and those of six Assembly contests overlapping the Senate districts. Republicans were outspent and out-hustled in all races. Going into election day, they held four Assembly seats; coming out, they hold one. They lost all state Senate races.

Money was supposed to be a GOP advantage this year. It wasn't, but the Republican reversal in the Assembly has deeper reasons than fund shortfalls.

The failure of middle-class suburban voters to stick with the party they put in charge in Sacramento two years ago is one reason. In 1994, these voters wanted Gov. Pete Wilson and the new GOP Assembly majority to change California's fiscal and economic policies. But Wilson spent nine months in 1995 fruitlessly pursuing the presidency, and by the time he returned to California, the GOP agenda was largely irrelevant.

Furthermore, the wedge issues of immigration and affirmative action, the supposed engines of a Bob Dole upset in California, had little relevance to these Republican-leaning suburban voters, so many stayed home. Ironically, Republican registration in each of the three lost state Senate districts and six Assembly seats is high, and usually more Republicans than Democrats vote. The South Bay-Long Beach seat is loaded with classical Reagan Democrats. But the Democratic message resonated better.

State Democrats, following President Bill Clinton's lead, talked the suburban talk. Republicans, echoing Dole, talked immigration and race. If suburbanites weren't listening to the GOP message, minorities were. In both the San Gabriel Valley and Long Beach Senate districts, where Democrats Adam Schiff and Betty Karnette won, respectively, 22% of the vote was nonwhite. It's quite probable that Dole's attempt to make immigration and Proposition 209 the issues backfired by driving higher numbers of minority voters to the polls.

Race is always a tricky issue in American politics, and the Republicans' clumsy attempts to ride 209 to victory may have reduced the initiative's own margin of victory, which was below what most polls had predicted. After Tuesday's results were tallied, Proposition 215, the marijuana initiative, and 210, the minimum-wage boost, received more votes than 209. These two initiatives clearly affected the voter mix, to the detriment of Republicans.

Race played another subliminal role in GOP defeats. In Contra Costa County, a suburb east of San Francisco, pro-gun votes by Republican candidates cost the GOP a congressional seat and possibly a state Senate seat. Concealed guns and assault weapons remind white suburbanites, many of whom live in gated communities, of gangs in the ghetto. That frightens them. Assembly Republicans cast a vote this year that would have allowed citizens to carry concealed weapons. One Republican consultant described the vote as taking "a bullet for the NRA." For some, it was fatal.

Indeed, that vote may have been the only consequential mistake of Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle's tenure. Democrats had planned to run against the GOP Assembly's "extremist" agenda, but Pringle, after some early missteps, had led his troops toward the center, thus blunting the Democratic attacks. The blame for his downfall lies elsewhere.

Some Pringle allies had privately suggested that Dole stay clear of California, and that the ever-explosive issue of affirmative action be kept out of partisan politics. It was good advice unheeded. During the week Dole barnstormed California, GOP numbers in legislative polls fell. Dole, the quintessential congressional insider, reminded voters what they didn't like about Washington and the Republican Congress. That, too, carried over into state legislative contests.

Yet, it is the Democrats, not the Republicans, who now face the great challenge of appealing to California's broad middle class. Overwhelming passage of Proposition 218, which restricts the ability of local governments to raise tax revenue, marks the continuing fiscal conservatism of state voters. Although the decline in statewide Democratic registration slowed somewhat in 1996, Democrats maintain only a 10-point advantage over Republicans. There is also the Democratic Party's weakness for expensive public projects, the chief flaw that drove away the Reagan Democrats in the first place.

Had Dole stayed away, and had the GOP resisted its impulse to get partisan with race and immigration, it is possible that Republicans would still control the Assembly. But Republicans pooh-bahs, from Wilson on down, insisted that Dole campaign in California, and that he play the race card. The GOP leaders got what they wanted.

Sometimes in politics, that's the worst outcome of all.

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