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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Election Shows GOP Needs Some 'New Republicans'

November 19, 1998|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Reading all the rehashes of the California election--the explanations, the excuses--one word keeps sticking in my mind: demographics. It means potential devastation of the Republican Party and long-term dominance by Democrats.

Sure, both parties have been eulogized before by pundits: Republicans after the 1964 Goldwater debacle and again in 1974 after Watergate; Democrats following the 1972 McGovern and 1984 Mondale trouncings. But saviors rose--Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton--to chart new party courses.

In California, Reagan changed the GOP message in 1966 and Gray Davis did the same for Democrats this year.

Politics is cyclical. Conditions, personalities and moods change.

That said, what's happening in California will not lend itself in the future to the normal cycles of politics. Rapidly changing racial and ethnic demographics are dramatically altering the political mix in favor of Democrats.

To survive and again prevail in California, the state GOP also will need to change. It must shift from a cadre of right-wing social activists, for whom "conservative" is the magic password, to a more centrist, pragmatic party in which a candidate can run unashamedly as a--horrors--"moderate."

The party should take its cue from Democrats, who in California have been led away from liberalism and toward the center by Gov.-elect Davis and Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Along with Clinton, they're called "new Democrats."

The GOP is going to need some "new Republicans."

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Look at the Times exit poll on election day.

Moderates--43% of the electorate--favored Davis over Republican Dan Lungren by 40 percentage points, and Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer over Republican Matt Fong by 29 points. But that's only part of the story.

The Republicans ran competitive races among white voters; Lungren lost whites by only 6 points and Fong won them by 2. It was among minorities that the GOP candidates got clobbered (although Fong did carry Asians narrowly). The result was a 20-point landslide for Davis and a comfortable 10-point win for Boxer.

Next, look at population projections from the state Finance Department. Today, whites comprise roughly 56% of the voting age population and, on Nov. 3, made up 64% of the electorate. But the GOP's white constituents are slowly declining. In 2010, their share of the voting age population will be down to 50%, and in 2030 to 41%.

Latinos now account for roughly 26% of voting age Californians. On election day, they were 13% of the electorate, up from 8% in 1994. They're projected to be 32% of the voter-eligible population in 2010 and 41%--the same as whites--in 2030. Moreover, they're becoming increasingly active politically.

"We haven't even begun to see the effects of Latino voters," notes independent pollster Mark Baldassare.

Compounding the dilemma for Republicans will be congressional and legislative redistricting in 2001. Barring passage of a Republican ballot initiative to strip the Legislature of its redistricting authority--a longshot--Democrats almost certainly will gerrymander the state to lock themselves into power through 2012.

It doesn't take much imagination to envision California going the way of Hawaii--dominated perpetually by Democrats.

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What can Republicans do?

For starters, they can be very leery of ever again running a candidate for governor who strongly opposes abortion rights. It's the GOP's equivalent of a Democrat who opposes the death penalty.

Lungren theorized that Latinos might empathize with his anti-abortion views because of their common Catholicism. But according to Harry Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, "there's a disconnect" between Latinos' voting and their religion. He notes that most Latino politicians favor abortion rights.

Republicans can also stop being toadies for the gun lobby. "Frankly, it's killing a lot of our candidates," says GOP consultant David Gilliard.

And, notes GOP State Political Director Mike Madrid, a young Latino: "It's the Saturday night specials and assault weapons that are killing the sons and daughters of parents in East L.A. This is not a culture terribly steeped in the right to bear arms."

To attract Latinos--and middle-class voters everywhere--Republicans need to push practical programs that help people, especially small business entrepreneurs and schoolchildren.

And with Gov. Pete Wilson's departure, Pachon notes, Democrats "aren't going to be able to keep waving that bloody shirt."

The GOP can survive in California and no doubt will, but in a different manner. We've begun a new era.

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