What GOP needs to consider before midterm in California

By Bill Whalen

Ever since the late Tim Russert affixed red and blue tags to the nation’s states during the course of the 2000 election, California has been hard-pressed to play a dominant role in American politics.

Yes, the nation-state has cast a long shadow in debates over same-sex marriage and climate change. And, yes, there was a little exercise in democracy called the recall that generated considerable buzz.

But otherwise, California is mostly missing in action as the national pendulum sways to and fro. We financially underwrite presidential elections but don’t sway them vote-wise. As for Congress, consider the great disconnect of 2010 – nationally, 52 House Democrats lost their jobs; in California, all 33 House Democrats who sought re-election were safely returned to office.

Will the 2014 election be any different? Probably not – even if another red tide rises, it might not reach true-blue California. But that hasn’t stopped the two parties from paying attention to the Golden State. Of the 26 most vulnerable incumbents the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee plans to defend, five are California-based. In order for Nancy Pelosi to regain the speaker’s gavel, she’ll likely have to take down three vulnerable House Republicans in the Central Valley and Inland Empire.

So which party will get the upper hand in these select pockets of California? For a clue, look no further than Congress’ struggle to produce immigration reform.

Why this topic as a tipping point in California House races? Three reasons:

• Room for growth. Hispanics account for three-eighths of California’s citizenry, but barely one-sixth its voting population. In 2012, the rate of growth for California voters – up 22 percent from 2008 – was only slightly one-half that of California’s youth vote. For all the attention directed toward Hispanic voters, California’s Asian American vote grew at roughly the same rate.

In 2014, because of the pool of available voters, the party that does the better job of converting Hispanics to its cause has the edge. In six of the state’s contested congressional districts, the Hispanic share of the vote is one-third or more of the electorate. For Democrats, it means expanding the base by making good on the promise to enact immigration reform. Just as some Republican incumbents either are similarly on the hook or want to prove that conservatives can demonstrate compassion.

• It’s a “gateway issue.” I’m stealing that term from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, co-author of an ambitious plan to overhaul the nation’s immigration system. Societally, Bush envisions immigration as an economic issue – a new emphasis on skilled workers so as to foster growth and lower the demands on government services. Politically, he sees the issue as a caricature-maker – anti-reform Republicans tarred as de facto anti-immigrant.

Bush is right in that immigration policy by itself isn’t a huge driver of votes – a 2012 survey by the Pew Hispanic Center listed the issue as fifth most important for Latino registered voters, trailing education, the economy, health care and the federal budget deficit, and barely finishing ahead of taxes. But failure to enact reform in the current session – the perception that conservatives stifled the movement – risks giving Democrats the same moral leg-up in the argument over what constitutes the American Dream.

• It divides Republicans. Bush is talking economics, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is talking pathway to citizenship. Other congressional Republicans are voicing concerns over border control, tech visas, agriculture exemptions and, in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, student visas, family reunification and background checks. In short, there’s no Republican consensus on immigration, a divide that won’t be settled – or papered over – until the national convention in 2016.

Add to this the national party’s tendency to leave California in the lurch. How else to explain the Republican National Committee holding a meeting in Hollywood and, in effect, thumbing its nose at the California electorate by passing a resolution reaffirming the party’s opposition to same-sex marriage? If immigration reform goes down in flames, at least it will happen on the other coast.

Of course, there’s another way for Republicans to look at next year’s midterms. It’s the Alfred E. Neuman approach: “What, me worry?” In midterm elections spanning the past 60 years, the president’s party has dropped an average of 26 House seats.

Moreover, Democrats will need a huge bump in enthusiasm: In 2012, there were only 11 House seats that Democrats lost by five percentage points or less. And in California, 2014 isn’t likely to be a repeat of 2010 and a high-dollar governor’s race that piqued the voters’ interest (a 59.6 percent turnout – the highest since 1994).

How tempting, then, for some Republicans to turn their back on California – just as Hispanic voters, unless the party changes its ways, will find it easier to keep turning their backs on Republican candidates.

This article originally appeared on the Sacramento Bee on Saturday April 27th.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and a former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Reach Whalen at whalenoped@gmail.com.

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