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As the GOP stands firm, California is changing direction

The results of the 2008 presidential election indicate that longtime Republican strongholds are on shifting ground.

March 05, 2009|Harold Meyerson | Harold Meyerson is editor at large of the American Prospect and an Op-Ed columnist for the Washington Post.

Those of us who practice or analyze California politics share an enduring conviction about the state. There's coastal California, stretching from the Oregon border to the southern boundaries of Los Angeles, which is liberal and Democratic. And there's inland California -- the Central Valley, the Sierra, the exurbs of Los Angeles and the desert -- which (along with Orange and San Diego counties) remains a bastion of right-wing Republicanism.

We use this fault line in state politics to explain, among other things, why all of California's Republican members of Congress could safely vote against President Obama's stimulus plan, and nearly all of California's GOP state legislators could safely delay a centrist budget for months. Republicans may be a clear minority in this state, but their lawmakers are so safe in their arch-conservative districts that they don't need to cooperate across the aisle.

Or so goes the conventional wisdom.

But there's a problem with this analysis: The fault line in California politics has shifted dramatically. And the state's Republicans haven't yet noticed.

To see the shift, one has only to look at the results of the 2008 presidential election. Now, it's hardly news that Obama carried California. In 2000, Al Gore carried the state with an 11-percentage-point margin over George W. Bush. In 2004, John Kerry prevailed over Bush by a 10-point margin. Same old, same old.

In 2008, however, Obama carried California over John McCain by a stunning 24-point margin -- 61% to 37%. He bettered Kerry's vote total by 1,528,998 votes, while McCain got 498,045 fewer votes than Bush did in 2004. This was not the result of an exceptional get-out-the-vote campaign. Like Gore and Kerry, Obama devoted virtually no general election resources to California: His Golden State volunteers drove to Nevada to turn out voters there, or phone-banked swing voters in Ohio. What's more, there were no other major statewide candidate contests on the ballot, no senatorial campaigns trying to push voters to the polls. And yet, a record number of Californians voted for Obama.

But it's when we break down the Obama-McCain vote by congressional district that the long-term political future of the state's GOP legislators really begins to look dicey. In 2004, Bush carried 22 of the state's 53 congressional districts -- all 20 districts represented by the state's GOP members of Congress and the two of the 33 districts represented by the state's Democratic members. In 2008, McCain carried just 11 of the state's 19 Republican districts (the Republicans lost one in the 2006 congressional elections). Obama carried all 34 Democratic districts and eight Republican ones.

The eight GOP congressional districts that swung Democratic are largely in exurban areas that Republicans have long claimed as their own. Seven are in Southern California, including David Dreier's district along the foothills of northeast Los Angeles County and western San Bernardino County; Howard P. "Buck" McKeon's sprawling district that includes Palmdale, Lancaster and much of the eastern Sierra Nevada; and Elton Gallegly's district, which stretches from Simi Valley to Solvang. Two other unexpectedly pro-Obama districts included Riverside and Palm Springs, while another is in northern San Diego County. The one sure to induce a double-take is John Campbell's (formerly Christopher Cox's) coastal Orange County district centered on Newport Beach -- John Wayne country, a bastion of American conservatism. Yet Obama carried it by 2,500 votes.

There's little evidence that the state's hard-core Republican voters have shifted their allegiances. But as younger voters and Latino, Asian and African American voters turn out in steadily greater numbers, the vast majority are voting Democratic, and more and more of them have moved into, or are now voting in, longtime Republican strongholds.

In the mid- and late '90s, the once solidly Republican inner suburbs of Los Angeles -- Burbank, Glendale, northern Orange County among them -- began sending Democrats to Washington and Sacramento as their demographics changed. They are now solidly Democratic. What the 2008 election results signify is that L.A.'s far-flung exurbs will soon be poised for a similar makeover. It may take several elections, some incumbent retirements and the carefully targeted intervention of Obama's volunteer legions to realize such a transformation. But Democrats have a potent if inadvertent ally in speeding this change: California's right-wing Republican establishment.

State Republicans have made it clear that any of their members of Congress or legislators in Sacramento who vote, say, for an Obama stimulus package or a state budget that dares to raise taxes on the rich rather than close down schools will be cast into the outer darkness. So Republicans representing the districts that Obama carried -- and that's 40% of the state's GOP districts -- will go on opposing policies that increasing numbers of their own constituents support.

At some point, these Republican legislators may have their Wile E. Coyote moment -- looking down and realizing that they've run off a cliff. But Wile E. Coyote moments always come too late.

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