At first glance, a casual visitor to the Republican state convention in San Diego last weekend might have mistaken the proceedings for a gathering of liberal Democrats.
“We’ve got a statewide ticket that looks like California, that reflects the diversity of California,” state GOP Chairman Ron Nehring told reporters as the event began.
Political appeals to gender and ethnic “diversity” in California have long been the exclusive property of Democrats, whose success in attracting support from women and Latino voters has been crucial to their recent dominance in state politics. Nehring’s emphasis on the issue, echoed by speakers throughout the convention, reflects a new organizational focus for the GOP, in a breakthrough campaign in which party voters have nominated women and people of color for top statewide offices.
Republicans not only made history by choosing former CEOs Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina as their first-ever women candidates for governor and U.S. senator but also began to chip away at the GOP’s entrenched identity as a party dominated by older white males, as voters selected both Lieutenant Governor Abel Maldonado, a 43-year-old Latino, and secretary of state hopeful Damon Dunn, a 34-year-old African American, for their ticket. In doing so, they reached arithmetic parity with Democrats, with both parties picking a slate that includes three women and two minority candidates running for eight statewide offices.
Despite these gains, the GOP is still a long way from politically fulfilling Nehring’s boast that their party “looks like California,” however.
For starters, white voters still account for 79 percent of registered Republicans, according to a Field Poll study released last year, although whites are now a minority — 43 percent — of the state’s overall population; by comparison, white voters represent about 55 percent of Democrats and 59 percent of independents.
Beyond the numbers, the GOP has never recovered politically from the bitter 1994 battle over Proposition 187, which called for outlawing education, health, and social services to illegal immigrants and their children; that year, then-governor (and current Whitman campaign chairman) Pete Wilson won reelection by hammering on the immigration issue, but in the process alienated many Latinos, the fastest growing segment of the electorate, who ever since have voted overwhelmingly Democratic.
This year, debate over illegal immigration dominated the Republican primary for governor, as Whitman and Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner engaged in a rhetorical arms race over who could talk tougher on the issue; in that context, it’s instructive that party officials worked overtime at the San Diego convention to keep the issue from even surfacing. When the event started, leaders of the right-wing California Republican Assembly, whose members are unhappy about Whitman’s move to the political center since the primary, put forth a resolution that called for the party to endorse formally Arizona’s tough anti-immigration law. Approval of the measure would have embarrassed Whitman, who opposes the Arizona law, so Nehring and others worked successfully behind the scenes to keep the resolution from coming before the convention.
As Republican statewide registration in recent years has sharply and steadily declined — it’s now about 31 percent, compared to 44 percent for the Democrats — the party is growing more aggressive to broaden its demographic reach. Whitman’s campaign has spent millions appealing to Latinos since winning the GOP nomination, and the party has launched a program aimed at recruiting women and minority candidates for state, legislative, and local offices.
Said Nehring: “Absolutely, the Republican Party cannot become a governing majority in California without dramatically increasing its reach into communities where we have underperformed in the past.”
THE MATCHUPS: Maldonado, the former state senator from Santa Maria, will have to defeat Democratic nominee and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom to keep the job to which Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed him earlier this year. Newsom, who earlier abandoned a campaign for governor, led Maldonado 43-to-34 percent in a Field Poll released last month, but Maldonado at the convention aggressively attacked him as an arrogant, out-of-the-mainstream liberal, unveiling a very tough online video (tinyurl.com/283yfer) that featured many of the lowlights of the mayor’s career.
Dunn is one of the more intriguing political stories of the year. The Texas-born son of a single mother, he was a star football player at Stanford and then played briefly in the NFL before going into real estate. Despite his high-energy, passionate political style, he faces an uphill battle against incumbent Democrat Debra Bowen — not least because he’s been embarrassed by disclosures of his spotty voting record as he seeks to become California’s new chief of elections.