FRESNO — From a small stand up the road at the Stanislaus County Fair, Sunny Hollister helped change the face of California politics.
For the past 15 years, the 45-year-old Turlock Republican has manned the GOP's red, white and blue fairground booth, registering 100 or so new Republicans each summer--and signing up as many as 500 in a really good year.
"A lot of them are Democrats who say they've always voted Republican and are just getting around to changing their registration," said Hollister, a migrant from the Silicon Valley who has been a member of the Grand Old Party "since my mother pushed me around in a stroller."
The Central Valley of yore, the Democratic bastion born of the New Deal and the westward movement of the dispossessed, is long gone.
Slowly but steadily, over the past 30 or so years, estrangement from the national Democratic Party and changes wrought by in-state migration have dramatically realigned politics in California's vast midsection. Today, the Central Valley is the state's single most competitive region--no lock for Democrat or Republican--making it California's most coveted political prize.
Underscoring the region's electoral import, the two major candidates for governor, Democrat Gray Davis and Republican Dan Lungren, will meet in Fresno tonight in the second of five debates scheduled before the Nov. 3 election. The 60-minute session is the first ever held in the heart of the valley and just one sign of the emphasis each campaign is placing on the region.
Both candidates have aimed their first--and so far only--TV advertising at the valley's legion of free-floating "swing" voters. Last week, Lungren spent two days bumping along on a Bakersfield-to-Sacramento bus tour. Davis marched in 100-degree heat in Modesto's Fourth of July parade and plans his own buscapade Wednesday.
Strategists for both camps agree that the race for governor could be decided here, in the fertile farm towns and mini-metropolitan areas spaced like so many place-settings along California 99.
Given the smothering summer, "Why else would these guys be spending so much time there?" said one Lungren advisor.
Each candidate approaches November with certain expectations. Davis is likely to carry the left-leaning San Francisco Bay Area by a huge margin and win big in Democratic Los Angeles. Lungren can count on running up the vote in Orange County and much of the rest of Southern California, though probably not the way Republicans used to, given Democratic inroads.
That makes the Central Valley pivotal, particularly for Lungren. A difference of just a few percentage points--perhaps just 100,000 votes either way--could prove decisive in a close contest.
Beyond the raw vote, the Central Valley is important symbolically, said Garry South, Davis' chief strategist, as a sort of bellwether that reflects California's moderately conservative leanings. "If a Democrat does well in the valley," South said, "they'll do well statewide."
Sprawling more than 400 miles from Redding to the Grapevine, the valley takes in only about a fifth of California's electorate, between 750,000 and 1 million voters, depending on turnout. But few other places have undergone the sort of seismic political shift witnessed here in the span of little more than a generation.
Beginning around 1932, and continuing for more than three decades, the Central Valley was California's Democratic heartland, a party stronghold in an otherwise solidly Republican state. The migrants who arrived in the valley in the 1930s and 1940s from places like Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and the border states came bearing their Democratic heritage as well as their desperate dreams.
"Fundamentally," said political demographer Tony Quinn, "the Central Valley became an extension of the Old South," where affiliation with the Democratic Party, like economic status or hair color, was something acquired at birth.
As in the South, Democratic loyalties were firmly fixed in the Central Valley by the great public works of Roosevelt's New Deal, which helped make the region what it is today: an epic triumph of man over nature, yielding the nation's richest and most lucrative agricultural bounty.
Indeed, Democratic rule was so complete, it was possible as late as 1958 to drive from the Oregon border through the Central Valley and Inland Empire without leaving a Democratic-held congressional district. Today, with a bit of creative detouring, the same trip could be taken through unbroken GOP congressional turf. Along California 99, four of the five biggest cities in the valley now have Republican mayors.