Richard Riordan can’t solve California’s GOP Latino problem

According to the Los Angeles Times, former L.A. mayor – and unsuccessful 2002 gubernatorial candidate – Richard Riordan has launched an effort to reach out to Latinos in California on behalf of the Republican Party.  The first thing that strikes me as funny about this, of course, is that the last time I checked, Riordan was still a white guy, not a Latino.

But on to the substance of the matter.  There’s no question that Republicans are in a world of hurt with Latinos in the Golden State.  From 1994 to 2010, the average percentage of the Latino vote garnered by all GOP presidential and gubernatorial nominees was only 25.3.  Latinos now comprise 38 percent of the population, and more than 20 percent of the electorate.  In only a matter of years, Latinos will easily overtake Caucasians as the largest ethnic group in the state.  Do the math.

One major problem is the Republicans’ public face.  The party of the elephant has become the party of white elephants, quite literally.  Republicans hold just 19 of the state’s 53 congressional seats, 15 of the 40 state Senate seats and 28 seats in the 80-member Assembly.  Not a single one of them is Latino.

But even on the rare occasions when Republicans nominate a Latino for statewide office, they still can’t win.  Ruben Barrales for controller in 1998, Gary Mendoza for insurance commissioner in 2002 and Abel Maldonado for lieutenant governor in 2010 – all had compelling personal stories but were decisively defeated in general elections with no measurable swing of Latino voters toward one of their own.  

Historically speaking, this state of affairs is supremely ironic.  The first Hispanic ever to represent a state in Congress actually was a Republican from California, Romualdo Pacheco, elected in 1876.  He also happened to be the first Hispanic ever to chair a standing congressional committee – the Committee on Private Land Claims.  But California Republicans haven’t elected a Latino to Congress since Pacheco – a drought of 136 years.

In the Assembly, the current situation also represents backward movement.  In 1996, the first Republican Latino was elected to the Assembly in modern times.  In 1998, three more gained office, and one even became Assembly minority leader.  The four of them started a first-ever Hispanic Republican Legislative Caucus.  Then, from 2004-08, there was only one Republican Latino.  Now there are none – and obviously no caucus, either.

The 2010 census points up the dire current and future predicament of California Republicans among Latinos.  Fully half of the state’s 58 counties gained in Latino population between 40.1 and 100 percent from 2000 to 2010.  Another 16 counties gained between 30.1 and 40 percent, and seven grew their Latino populations between 20.1-30 percent.  Only one county, tiny Alpine, the smallest in the state, lost Latino residents in the past 10 years.

Even scarier for Republicans’ future, according to the census an absolute majority of all Californians under 18 are now Latino.  Every year, another segment of that cohort turns 18 and thus eligible to register and vote – and they’ll likely give 65-75 percent of their votes to Democrats.

In terms of the electorate, Latinos also are the fastest-growing segment (with Asian Americans the second-fastest growing).  In 1994, when Gov. Pete Wilson was seeking a second term and Prop. 187 was on the ballot, whites constituted 82 percent of the voters, Latinos only 8 percent.  By 2006, whites made up 75 percent and Latinos 12 percent.  In the 2010 general election, Caucasians were just 62 percent, while Latinos were 22 percent – an historic high – which is why Meg Whitman could carry the white vote and still lose by 13 points.

More ominous for Republicans, Latinos in California have become reliably generic Democratic voters, whether the Democratic candidate is strong or weak, 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 73-23 among Latinos, and Kerry won Latinos in ’04 by a 68-31 margin.  Four years later, Obama beat McCain among California Latinos 74-23.  Nationally as well as in California, no other major demographic voting group swung so heavily from Clinton, who generally carried Latinos heavily in the primary contests, to Obama between the primary and the general as did Latinos.

Part of the GOP problem with Latinos is generational.  Latinos are, on average, the youngest-skewing voters of all.  Data indicate that more than an astonishing 70 percent of Latino voters in the 2010 election had registered since 1994, when the divisive, anti-immigrant Prop. 187 was ridden by 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.

The harsh anti-immigrant tone of the party’s presidential nominating process – “self-deportation”? – also doesn’t help, of course. But one other major hitch is that Republicans simply misunderstand where Latinos are coming from on a range of non-immigration issues.  Because most Latinos are Roman Catholic, family oriented and tend to be socially conservative on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, the GOP blithely and blindly assumes they are also rock-ribbed conservatives on fiscal matters. 

But most Latinos are demonstrably not no-new-taxes-ever or whack-government-programs-to-the bone adherents.  If you mine the exit-polling data on school-bond elections, water and parks bonds and other spending issues, you will find that Latinos tend to give the highest percentage of support of any ethnic group to such matters involving increased government outlays.

Republicans, already down to only 30 percent of registered voters in the Golden State, are courting long-term political irrelevance if they fail to grasp and contend with the continuing emergence of the state’s Latino voting power, and find some way to speak credibly to them.

But 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 (telephone call for Mitt Romney about Marco Rubio).  So drag out the mariachi bands, Dick Riordan, and buena suerte.

Eds’ Note: Garry South is a longtime Democratic strategist and commentator and a member of the Council on American Politics at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.

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