Legacy of California's Prop. 187 foreshadows GOP's path ahead

Legacy of California's Prop. 187 foreshadows GOP's path ahead
A quarter century ago, California Gov. Pete Wilson (R) faced an ignominious end to his political career.

Polls showed he trailed state Treasurer Kathleen Brown (D), well-financed and blessed with a famous name, by double digits. Without a dramatic turnaround, Wilson’s bid for reelection seemed doomed.

So Wilson made a risky bet: He endorsed and campaigned hard for a ballot measure that would have denied publicly-funded medical services and education to undocumented immigrants.
 
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The vicious campaign that ensued played to white angst in a state with a rapidly growing immigrant population, castigating the new residents as the root of all that was wrong in California. 

Proposition 187 passed. Wilson won reelection by a comfortable margin. Republicans captured control of the state legislature.

But the sugar high that sent Republicans to power wore off, and the GOP’s long, slow slide into obscurity in the nation’s largest state resumed.

Wilson’s short-run bet paid off, but the long term consequence has been the death of California’s Republican Party.
 
Just two years after the proposition passed, Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonGOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial Biden, Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg, Harris lead Trump in Georgia: Poll Keep your eye on essential facts in the unfolding impeachment circus MORE became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win a majority of California’s votes since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Two years later, Gray Davis became the first Democrat to win the governor’s mansion since 1980.

“[Prop.] 187 produced almost the exact opposite result that its sponsors intended. It never became law because the courts struck it down. It created a great deal of anger in Mexico and with Mexican Americans,” Davis said in an interview. “People actively started taking steps in the Mexican American community to become an important political force. They organized, they ran good candidates, and they ran more professionalized campaigns.”

Today, Democrats hold super majorities in both chambers of the state legislature. Republicans hold only seven of the state’s 53 U.S. House districts. The Republican candidate who ran for governor nearly missed advancing to the general election; in November 2018, he won three million fewer votes than Democrat Gavin NewsomGavin Christopher NewsomCalifornia regulators open investigation into power outages means to prevent wildfires Hillicon Valley: Schumer questions Army over use of TikTok | Federal court rules against random searches of travelers' phones | Groups push for election security funds in stopgap bill | Facebook's new payment feature | Disney+ launch hit by glitches Tech firms face skepticism over California housing response MORE.

Now, as President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial Warren goes local in race to build 2020 movement 2020 Democrats make play for veterans' votes MORE foreshadows a reelection bid that will focus heavily on boosting turnout among rural white voters who strongly support his calls to build a wall and halt illegal immigration, the Republican Party faces a similar bet: That the short-term upside will allay longer-term political costs.

But the legacy of Prop. 187 — and two other ballot measures that played to white angst, ending affirmative action in 1996 and limiting bilingual education in most public schools in 1998 — offer a glimpse of the precipice on which they now stand.

Some Republicans in California say the state’s turn from red to blue began long before Pete Wilson came on the scene.
 
Ron Nehring, a former state Republican Party chairman, says the GOP’s real slide began in the 1950s, at the end of a decade-long era of Republican rule under Gov. Earl Warren (R).
 
Instead, the party’s wins in 1994 represented more of a temporary boost, the back end of a national wave that cost Democrats their control of Congress.

“Prop. 187 energized Hispanic voters and helped turn them away from the GOP. But it is not the only reason for the party’s decline,” said John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College and a former spokesman for the Republican National Committee. “Hispanics had long leaned Democratic, and the increase in the Hispanic voting population would have hurt the Republicans with or without Prop. 187.”

As the nation’s demographics change and the country begins looking more like California did then, Republicans believe they have inroads to make among Hispanic voters.
 
Those voters, especially the older cohort, are more likely to hold conservative social views and to attend church. In fact, research shows that Hispanic voters had been moving toward Republicans in California, until Prop. 187 passed.

But the GOP’s appeal to a different base — then, as now, a white working class that feels threatened by the rising numbers and economic fortunes of minority voters — forecloses any opportunity to appeal to Hispanic voters.
 
Trump won just 28 percent of Latino voters in the 2016 election. A recent Fox News poll shows Trump’s approval rating at just 26 percent among Hispanic voters.
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What’s more, the three propositions in the late 1990s may have motivated a rising generation of white voters, not just Hispanics, to move left as well.
 
A 2006 study conducted by the political scientists Shaun Bowler, Stephen Nicholson and Gary Segura found white voters, and especially younger whites, became significantly less likely to call themselves Republicans in the wake of those propositions.

“I do see a similar trend nationwide — the GOP has moved to the right on issues which lose them younger and non-white voters. And, increasingly, loses them women voters,” Bowler said Friday.

Voter sentiment today appears to mirror much of the immediate impacts of Prop. 187 a quarter century ago.
 
Suburban voters have booted Republicans in favor of Democratic candidates in Virginia in 2017 and 2019; Democratic gains in the 2018 midterm election were concentrated in those same suburban areas where well-educated white voters are turned off by appeals to racial angst.

And, as in the wake of Prop. 187, voters are incredibly enthusiastic about casting their ballots. Polls routinely show that voters are already as engaged or interested in the 2020 presidential election as they were in the days and weeks leading up to the 2012 and 2016 contests, leading some to forecast record-breaking turnout.

“We’ve seen this movie before, and it’ll have the same effect,” Davis said. “The turnout next November will be massive. President Trump is a one-man get-out-the-vote operation for both parties.”

Back in California, the bottom is still dropping out. In 2018, Democrats picked up five U.S. House seats in California, in both Orange County — the historical home of Richard Nixon and the Reagan revolution — and the Central Valley.

“There is no regular back and forth swinging of the pendulum — the trends at work here span decades, and there is no sign it has reached bottom,” Nehring said.
 
The seven Republican members of California’s congressional delegation are a smaller club than at any time since 1939, when California had only 20 seats in the House.