For more than half a century, the Election Night fate of California Republican candidates could be foretold early in the vote count: If a Republican emerged from Orange County with a lead of 250,000 or more votes, he or she would almost always win statewide office.
That’s what it took to overcome the big majorities Democrats could count on in places like San Francisco and Alameda County.
But as things now stand, it’s virtually impossible for any Republican to win the OC by that large a margin. At the same time, where the state’s biggest county, Los Angeles, was once a tossup with voters inside the LA city limits going strongly Democratic and suburbanites voting Republican, that’s changed, too. Democrats now hold all but a few state elective offices in Los Angeles County, both inside and outside the eponymous city limits.
But it’s in Orange County that Republican problems are most obvious. The GOP held an 18 percentage-point voter registration lead over Democrats as recently as 2001; today that edge has slipped to just 10 percent. Registered Republicans still outnumber Democrats in the OC, but only by 583,625 to 442,378, according to the secretary of state (http://www.sos.ca.gov/elections/ror/ror-pages/ror-odd-year-2013/county.pdf). That’s a margin of about 140,000 – a far cry from that vital 250,000-vote threshold.
With about one-fourth of the county’s voters refusing to choose a party label, Republicans would need a near sweep of the independent vote to reach their once commonly attainable margin.
This matters to every Californian, not only because a narrow victory in an Orange County district was a key factor in giving Democrats their current two-thirds supermajority in the state Assembly, but because it’s in the interest of everyone to have competitive political races. Without that, there is little pressure on the dominant Democrats to compromise on anything, little motive for them to resist the impulse to create new program after new program, each costing tax dollars.
Yes, Gov. Jerry Brown might act as a check on this proclivity – he has, so far – but he won’t be governor forever and other Democratic prospects from Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom to wealthy civil rights lawyer Molly Munger have never evinced the skinflint side Brown can display.
Every Republican politician in California admits the party is on life support, with virtually no chance today in districts outside a few in the inland parts of the state, including the Central Valley and several parts of the Inland Empire, coastal Orange County and northern San Diego County.
Even some of those longtime strongholds are threatened today. Example: San Diego, long a GOP bastion that’s home to many thousands of conservative-leaning military retirees, now has a Democratic mayor.
It is mostly Latino voters that have transformed the California political map, but even running an attractive, moderate Latino Republican is often not enough to change things. The best example of this may be what happened to Abel Maldonado in a Santa Barbara County congressional district last fall. Maldonado, a former appointive lieutenant governor and father of the state’s “top two” primary election system, ran a strong campaign against incumbent Democrat Lois Capps, even seeming to win their debates. But he still lost by 8 percent as the majority of independent voters in his district spurned him.
It would take a sea-change in the state GOP’s attitude toward illegal immigration to change Latino feelings about the party’s label, negatively cemented in 1994 by then-Gov. Pete Wilson’s strong support for the anti-illegal immigrant Proposition 187 and the draconian restrictions it sought to place on the undocumented. The measure went so far as to deny emergency room care to the sick and injured if they lacked proper papers.
It was no accident when more than 2.5 million Latinos became naturalized citizens in the three years after that, almost all registering as Democrats.
It was also no coincidence that the late ‘90s saw congressional seats covering most of inland, northern Orange County start to go Democratic on a regular basis. First in that trend was the narrow victory of Democratic Latina Loretta Sanchez over Republican veteran Bob Dornan in 1996.
That’s emblematic of what has happened in most of the state, which once had a nearly even split in its congressional delegation, but now sees Democrats dominating by a lopsided 38-15 count.
The bottom line: To recover, Republicans must do something (immigration amnesty beyond green cards for the highly educated would be a start) to reverse their miserable image among Latinos. And they need to start in their Orange County heartland.