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Archive for Thursday, April 22, 1999

GOP STRUGGLES IN CALIFORNIA

April 22, 1999

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— Last Thursday morning, when a reporter walked into the office of state Sen. Jim Brulte, the unofficial mastermind of the beleaguered Republican minority in the capitol of this mega-state, he brought a bit of news: All hell was about to break loose in the first-floor corridor separating the offices of the two top Democrats, Gov. Gray Davis and Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante.

Davis had scheduled a news conference to announce he would appeal a district court decision that essentially nullified Prop. 187, the 1994 initiative sponsored by former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson that denied the children of illegal aliens access to California schools, health clinics and social services. Bustamante had learned within the hour of the decision and, his press secretary had tipped off the reporter, he was furious.

Prop. 187 and Prop. 209 -- ending racial preferences in admissions to California colleges -- were denounced by Davis in his 1998 campaign as examples of the "wedge politics" he vowed to end. Now he was about to announce that because "I have taken an oath to enforce all the laws of our state, regardless of my personal views," he would invite the appeals court to mediate the case and determine what, if any, aspects of Prop. 187 might pass constitutional muster.

Bustamante, the state's highest Latino elected official, ripped into the decision. Joining the denunciation was Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, who said it would have been better to "close this chapter of the culture wars."

It was the first serious split in the Democratic leadership since Davis trounced Republican Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren by 20 points last November, giving the Democrats their biggest victory in two decades. Wilson's "wedge politics" had mobilized and polarized the growing Latino vote -- as it had labor and teachers and other constituencies -- and had led to California joining Hawaii and Maryland as the only states with a Democratic governor and two Democratic senators.

Brulte, who said Davis was only doing what he expected a self-proclaimed "New Democrat" politician to do, was not about to exaggerate his jubilation at the Democrats' disarray.

Sitting on his desk was a report from a young German-born political scientist named Bernd Schwieren, a man Brulte had hired from Jack Kemp's office for the Assembly Republican staff. The month-old report, titled "The Emerging Republican Minority," was a grim assessment of the GOP's long-term problems in the Golden State.

In 1997, Schwieren had delivered two analyses showing the decline of the Republican vote in Latino areas and among "New Economy" workers in the growing high-tech, media and service sectors. Those reports accurately foretold the Lungren debacle.

Now, in 53 pages of texts and charts, he documented the conclusion that the 199Os have seen California Republicans lose two presidential elections, four Senate races and now the governorship, because they have failed to adapt their past strategy to "a new electorate whose most dynamic elements -- women, Latinos and New Economy workers -- are the most hostile to the Republican Party."

Lungren ran a classic GOP campaign -- appealing to core Republicans on economic issues and to "Reagan Democrats" or blue-collar industrial workers on cultural issues. But both groups are smaller than they were, and the expanding constituencies have other concerns, notably education and the environment, and are far more tolerant of cultural diversity.

The erosion Schwieren describes is dramatic. In the 1990s, Wilson -- who was a supporter of abortion rights -- was the only Republican to win more than 40 percent of the women's vote. As the Latino share of the electorate has doubled in a decade, the Republican portion has declined from the mid-30s to around 20 percent. No major statewide candidate has been able to win a majority among voters who have more than a bachelor's degree -- now over one-fifth of the California electorate.

Brulte, a thoroughly pragmatic fellow, says he thinks "our problem is more our messenger than our message." He is attacking it at two levels. "My leadership PAC will give no more money to Anglo males in Republican primaries. Every dollar I can raise is going to nominate Latinos and Asian-Americans and women. We have to expand our outreach."

At the top of the ticket, Brulte, like almost every other Republican legislator, is supporting Texas Gov. George W. Bush for the nomination in hopes he can duplicate his home-state success in nontraditional constituencies. "Nothing will change the dynamic faster than getting the right presidential candidate," he says.

But it may take more than one set of nominees -- or the Democratic split that surfaced last week -- to reverse the trends Schwieren has documented.

-- David Broder is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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