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Even Before Donald Trump, California Republicans Had a Huge Latino Problem

Two decades after California Republicans backed the anti-immigrant Proposition 187, the party holds virtually no power in the 39 percent Latino state. And Trump isn't helping.
Donald Trump at a San Jose campaign rally on June 2. (Photo by Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

After Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump doubled-down this weekend on a series of discriminatory comments aimed at a Mexican-American federal judge, a longstanding question has once again come to the fore: Can Republicans win presidential elections if they keep pissing off Mexican-Americans?

Trump implied in interviews last week that US district judge Gonzalo Curiel, who was born in Indiana to Mexican immigrant parents, is unfit to hear a case involving the candidate's disgraced Trump University because "he's Mexican" and thus has a conflict of interest due to Trump's comments about Mexicans during the presidential campaign. Trump has courted racial animus from the very start, prompting large demonstrations at his recent campaign rallies in California, and spurring people opposed to his views to register to vote.


Trump's latest comments were slammed on social media and deemed racist and "inexcusable" by Democrat and Republican leaders alike. But how significant an impact his latest comments about Mexican Americans will have on California's Latino voters is up for debate, because many of those voters were effectively lost to Republicans two decades ago.

The state's large and influential Latino voting bloc, which is mostly Mexican American, is expected to vote overwhelmingly on Tuesday for the two leading Democratic presidential contenders, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, polls show.

About 77 percent of Latinos in the state have a negative view of Trump, according to a poll conducted by the Los Angeles Times and the University of Southern California. Trump launched his campaign by calling Mexican immigrants "rapists" and saying he hopes to build a wall on the southern border.

"The timing of this is really bad for Republicans because it comes right in the middle of a rebuilding process for Republicans in California," said Bill Whalen, a GOP strategist and research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

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Though Latinos are now the largest ethnic group in California, the state Republican Party is just 8 percent Latino. California Democrats are nearly a third Latino, and independents or decline-to-state voters boast even higher numbers of Latinos.


According to the Public Policy Institute of California, large majorities of Democrats and independents oppose Trump's plan to build a wall on the border with Mexico; Republicans favor it. Overall, across party lines, most California voters oppose mass deportations as floated by Trump, and believe illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay in the country.

Nearly every county in the state has a sizable Latino population — 39 percent of California is Latino, and 83 percent of that group claims Mexican descent. California has more Latinos, and more Latino voters, than any other state.

"I think Trump is scary," said Nancy Madrid-Ally, a 64-year-old shopkeeper whose grandparents emigrated to Los Angeles from Mexico during the Mexican Revolution a century ago. "I understand that a lot of people don't like that a lot of people are crossing the border, but honestly, a lot of the jobs that Latinos have are jobs that white people just don't want."

The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Latinos' antipathy toward the Republican Party in California developed long before Trump entered the 2016 race. It can be traced back at least as far back as 1994, when a state ballot initiative known as Proposition 187 was passed with overwhelming support.

Then-governor Pete Wilson, a Republican, campaigned for re-election in 1994 behind Prop 187, which sought to deny public services to illegal immigrants. It was marketed to voters with a racially charged message that demonized immigrants, warning in one infamous campaign ad that, "They keep coming."


For its backers, Prop 187 was a response to growing anxieties among white, black, and even US-born Latinos that the surge of undocumented Mexican and Central American immigrants crossing the border in the 1990s posed a threat to the state. But in political terms, the 187 campaign felt to many of the state's emerging Latino voters like an attack, creating wounds that have yet to heal, says Lisa Garcia-Bedolla, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley.

"That commercial that Wilson played made it very clear that they were talking about one particular kind of undocumented immigrant," Garcia-Bedolla said. "This deliberate race-baiting worked to get Pete Wilson elected, but it was extremely divisive."

'Pete Wilson killed the Republican Party in California, but Trump is putting the corpse in the wood chipper.'

Prop 187 won the popular vote in California, giving an immediate political win for Wilson. But it was later ruled unconstitutional in the courts and never implemented. Wilson has mostly left public life but still defends the 187 push.

In the long-term, the use of immigration as a wedge issue and the scapegoating of Latino immigrants for the state's problems led to a long-term weakening of the state's Republican Party that analysts say will be felt during Tuesday's primary.

Registered Republicans in California fell from 5.2 million in the 2012 primary election to 4.9 million this year. In contrast, more than 8 million Californians are registered for the primary as Democrats.


"Pete Wilson already killed the Republican Party in California, but [Trump], he's putting the corpse in the wood chipper," said political cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz. "That's it. That's it for Republicans in California, and maybe nationwide."

The youngest Latino voters in the state, however, hadn't even been born when Prop 187 was passed.

"Now it's just the older voters who remember 187," said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the NALEO Education Fund. "It's been 22 years, a lot of your young millennials don't have an idea of what you're talking about when you talk about Prop 187."

Over the weekend in the largely Latino LA suburb of San Fernando, canvassers gathered to locate potential Bernie Sanders voters and urge them to make it to the polls on Tuesday. Jesus Arciga, 26, was one of them. He was born in Michoacan, Mexico, and brought to the States at age 6.

Jesus Arciga canvassing in San Fernando. (Photo by Daniel Hernandez/VICE News)

Arciga, who is undocumented and a DACA recipient, said he felt it was necessary to get people to vote for a Democratic candidate — anyone but Trump.

"Even though I can't vote, even myself can be very influential to my friends and family that are able to vote for a presidential candidate who is for the people," Arciga said.

When asked if he'd ever heard of Pete Wilson or Prop 187, he said he hadn't.

That response makes sense to Mike Madrid, a veteran Republican strategist in California. He believes that with or without Wilson and Prop 187, the state's Latinos would feel alienated from the GOP today. He also believes it's temporary.


"The conventionalism states that California is the bluest state because of the rise of the Latino vote; that is true, but that is only half of the story," Madrid said. "The other side is the exodus of white blue-collar jobs, and as we started to lose that middle class, you had the double whammy of a rise of Latino voters who rejected the Republican Party, and at the same time, the collapse of the [Republican] voter base."

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Madrid argues that the Democrats' dominance in California — the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, and two US senators are Democrats, 39 of 53 US representatives are Democrats, and both state legislative houses are firmly under Democratic control — actually makes them vulnerable in future races. How? California's housing, poverty, education, and homelessness problems, which Madrid says affect Latinos disproportionately, remain unsolved. Sooner or later, he says, voters will take note.

According to Whalen, the other GOP strategist, that probably won't happen this year. The Trump effect, he says, is too strong.

"If [Trump] loses the state by 20 points, what is the damage down ticket?" Whalen asked. "If he is a very bad candidate in California, there is a risk of Republicans losing three or four [US] House seats."

Follow Daniel Hernandez on Twitter: @longdrivesouth