California was not always a reliable blue state. Other than in the 1964 LBJ landslide win over Goldwater, California supported the Republican candidate in every electoral cycle in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. But by the early 1990s, the increasing diversity of the state began to alter its political landscape.
The debate within the California GOP at the time was eerily similar to that happening within the national Republican Party today. Virtually all Republican leaders conceded that the rise of Latino and Asian-American voters required some response, but what that response should be was the subject of intense disagreement.
California GOP reformers, noting that a Democratic Presidential Candidate (Bill Clinton) had broken the GOP lock on the state in 1992 with strong support from minority voters, argued that the party had to modernize by reaching out to people of color, for example the many immigrants who had entrepreneurial aspirations. A different faction, who pointed out that Clinton had captured only 46% of the popular vote and that Ross Perot had attracted many conservative white voters, insisted that the Republican party double down on whites by making race-based appeals to them.
The two GOP factions battled each other in the lead-up to the 1994 gubernatorial election and the “double-downers” won. Anti-immigrant ballot Proposition 187 was the central issue of the contest, and like any Californian I can attest to the venomous, racially-divisive nature of the debate that surrounded it. Republican Pete Wilson publicly embraced the measure at every campaign stop, and rode anti-immigrant sentiment to re-election with strong support from White voters.
In the process, Wilson and those who advised him to double-down on white voters permanently crippled the California Republican Party. Subsequent Democratic Presidential candidates have not even bothered to campaign in this minority-majority state; why should they? They need only stop by to gather big campaign contributions that would have gone to Republicans in prior eras. Traditional Republicans are neutered in the state legislature and have no chance in the gubernatorial race either. The only Republican Governor since Wilson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, won by packaging himself as a post-partisan figure who rejected many of the national GOP’s key positions.
The California lesson for the national GOP as party leaders debate whether to not to embrace Donald Trump? Racially divisive appeals to alienated white voters can work, but pursuing such short-term electoral rewards is a route to long-term political oblivion in an increasingly diverse America.