There was an election in which the Republican nominee was widely regarded as doomed. His negatives were sky-high and his opponent had assembled a broad coalition against him. The Democratic nominee had won statewide election in her own right, even though critics accused her of riding the dynastic coat-tails of her political family. The outcome was foreordained.
Except it wasn't. The hapless GOP candidate won and relegated the Democratic candidate to the ranks of the also-rans. The Republican was Pete Wilson, the Democrat was Kathleen Brown, and the election was the 1994 gubernatorial contest in California. Although Wilson was the incumbent governor, the sorry condition of the state economy had negated the advantage that usually accrued to a candidate running for re-election. (The Golden State had not turned its back on an incumbent governor seeking a second term since Culbert Olson in 1942.) As the third member of the politically prominent Brown family to seek the governorship, state Treasurer Kathleen Brown was considered a strong favorite.
So how did Wilson turn it around and rescue his political career? Very simply: He shed all pretense of human decency and launched a blatantly racist attack on the state's immigrant population. “They keep coming! Two million illegal immigrants in California,” intoned the voice-over narrator of the Wilson campaign's best-known political ad. “The federal government won't stop them at the border.” It didn't matter that both major political parties were skilled at avoiding the issue of California's southern border. Republicans mostly looked the other way because cheap immigrant labor was the backbone of the agribusiness workforce during harvest season. Democrats hesitated to offend the Latinos in their political base by cracking down on the family members who were the principal component of the undocumented migration. The political parties used different rhetoric whenever forced to address the issue, but the tacit consensus was to kick the can down the road as long as possible.
When Gov. Wilson decided to exploit white fears of a flood-tide of undocumented brown immigrants (characterized as lawbreakers instead of farm laborers), he was aided by the inclusion of anti-immigrant Proposition 187 on the November ballot, along with the Republican wave that gave the GOP a House of Representatives majority for the first time in forty years. With some help from the Kathleen Brown campaign, which had taken her lead for granted till it was much too late, Wilson snagged a second term.
And the California Republican Party has never recovered. The Democrats have super-majorities of two-thirds in both houses of the state legislature. All statewide offices are held by Democrats. Both candidates for the U.S. Senate in 2016 were Democrats because the top-two primary system advanced them to the November general election run-off; between them, the Democrats received 59.2% of the vote, while the Republican in third place garnered only 7.8%. The GOP in California is moribund.
After the Republicans lost the presidential race in 2012 to Barack Obama, they engaged in some introspection that resulted in a trenchant post-mortem document that detailed the party's plight with minorities—which were growing to constitute in aggregate a majority of the population. While white voters are disproportionately likely to turn out at election time, they also constitute a shrinking demographic. It's not a sustainable platform. The bizarre 2016 election demonstrated that circumstances can still produce a winning (though not majority) coalition, but it required a convergence of racial fears, voter suppression, dirty tricks, and foreign interference to pull it off.
It could be pointed out that Pete Wilson was not California's last Republican governor, but that fact sends a mixed message. We have had three governors since Wilson left office: two Democrats and one Republican. The identity of the Republican gives little solace to the state GOP. It was Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose celebrity status in a blanket primary in an unlikely recall election was his ticket to success. His election was more of a fluke than a Republican resurgence.
|California General Election votes for Governor (in millions)
We'll see what 2018 brings.