Can even a Maldonado draw Latino votes?

You’ve gotta give Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger some credit for appointing a Latino to the vacant lieutenant governor’s office.  In every previous appointment to statewide office by Republican governors – including the Governator himself in 2005 – going back to 1974, they unimaginatively chose middle-aged white males.

 The latest gubernatorial pick, state Sen. Abel Maldonado, says he’ll run for the position even if he’s not confirmed by the Democratic Legislature.  But will it matter in terms of turning around nearly two decades of massive disaffection with Republicans among Latino voters?  Can even a Latino Republican win Latino votes in California?  

 In 2006, the California GOP put up a lily-white ticket consisting of seven middle-aged males running for constitutional office – and, just to make sure they didn’t alienate their white-male base, yet another one against Sen. Dianne Feinstein.  All but two went down to defeat.  

 Let’s not forget, though, that in the very recent past Republicans did nominate two Latinos for statewide office – Ruben Barrales for controller in 1998 and Gary Mendoza for insurance commissioner in 2002.  Both were attractive, articulate candidates with compelling personal stories.  But despite their ethnicity, both also went down in flames, the former receiving only 33 percent of the vote in the general election, the latter drawing just 41.7 percent.

 In fact, the last Republican Latino statewide officeholder was nearly 140 years ago, when Romualdo Pacheco was elected lieutenant governor in 1871, then served several months as governor in 1875.    

Part of the GOP problem with Latinos is generational.  Latinos are, on average, the youngest-skewing voters of all.  Data indicate that fully 78 percent of Latino voters in the Golden State have registered since 1994, when the divisive, anti-immigrant Prop. 187 was ridden by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson as a reelection vehicle.  Prop. 187 was a watershed event in California political history, as it turned an entire generation of Latinos into reliable Democratic voters.

How reliable?  A huge majority of California Latino voters vote generically Democratic, whether the Democratic candidate is strong or weak, pretty or ugly, wins or loses.  In the 1996 presidential race, California Latinos voters gave President Clinton a huge 75-18 margin over Bob Dole.  In 2000, Gore beat Bush here 73-23 among Latinos, and Kerry won Latinos in ’04 by a 68-31 margin.  

 But perhaps the most telling data about the Republicans’ dire predicament with Latinos is provided by the 2008 presidential race.  In the California primary on February 3, Hillary Clinton won the Hispanic vote over Barack Obama by a huge 67-32 margin.

 This led to GOP conjecture about how it might represent an opening for their nominee in California in the fall – would Latinos actually vote for a black man for president, especially since they had shunned him in the primary?  Even a May Field Poll showed Latinos still preferring Clinton over Obama – who was then on the brink of mathematically capturing the nomination – by 63-29.

 But by July, another Field Poll showed presumptive nominee Obama with a 64-21 lead over John McCain.  And in November, Obama beat McCain among California Latinos 74-23.  So much for that opening.  Nationally as well as in California, no other major demographic voting group swung so heavily from Clinton to Obama between the primary and the general as did Latinos.

 Some blocs in California are consummate swing voters – but not Latinos.  In the 1998 gubernatorial election, for example, Democrat Gray Davis carried whites, moderates, independents, Latinos and Asian Americans over Republican nominee Dan Lungren – including winning Latinos 71-23. In the 2006 governor’s race, however, whites, moderates, independents and Asian Americans all flipped and voted by substantial margins for Schwarzenegger.

 But Latino voters stayed with the hapless Democratic candidate for governor that year.  Davis also had beaten GOP nominee Bill Simon 65-24 among Hispanics in 2002, even though the weakened, unpopular incumbent only won the election by a 5-point margin.  And in 2006, even with Democratic nominee Phil Angelides getting shellacked by Schwarzenegger 56-39, Latinos supported the Democrat 61-33.

 In further bad news for the GOP, Latinos also are the fastest-growing segment of the electorate, with Asian Americans the second-fastest growing.  Whites have been declining in terms of the composition of the turnout for years.  In 1994, with Wilson seeking a second term and Prop. 187 on the ballot, whites constituted 82 percent of the voters, Latinos only 8 percent.  In the 2008 general election, Caucasians were just 63 percent, while Latinos were 18 percent – an historic high.

The dirty little secret is, Latino voters, by any analysis historical or statistical, are just not available for Republican candidates in California at this time, whether Hispanic-surnamed or not.  So, sorry, Abel, and nice try, Arnold.

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