When we need a shortcut to explain why it's a bad long-term strategy to scapegoat immigrants for short-term gain, we point to California — where the GOP has become a sloppy karaoke version of its old self, a larger third-party that may not even field a candidate for governor in next year’s general election.
Of the many steps the national GOP has taken in that direction, none was more dramatic or potentially consequential than Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ announcement Tuesday that the Trump administration was rescinding the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that protects undocumented immigrants brought here as children.
What’s usually forgotten about the California Republican Party’s near self-immolation is that it took decades for rigor mortis to take hold. National Republicans are setting themselves up for the same sort of rot.
Political scientist Matt Barreto uses the term “Prop 187 effect” to describe the California GOP’s declining share of Latino votes. Ronald Reagan's Latino support peaked at 45% in 1984, when he carried the state for the second time in a presidential race, and the California GOP pulled off another presidential win in 1988. But Democratic nominees have carried the state ever since.
In 1994, Republican governor Pete Wilson boosted his reelection campaign with a push for Proposition 187, a ballot measure that denied undocumented Californians access to non-emergency services. Wilson won with over 55% of the vote; Prop 187 did even better at almost 59%.
Although California’s Latino voters began rushing toward the Democratic Party almost immediately after 1994, dooming state GOP hopes in presidential and U.S. Senate elections, the party kept scoring key wins by attacking diversity. Proposition 209 took aim at affirmative action in 1996 and won by almost 10 percentage points. Proposition 227 took on bilingual education in 1998 and won by more than 20 points, even as Democrats elected Gray Davis, their first governor in 16 years, by a similar margin.
In 2003, less than a year after he was reelected, Davis became the state’s first governor ever to be recalled. He was replaced by Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, a celebrity who had long dabbled in politics before leaping in to win. He used his charisma to break the mold of his failing party and sidestep late-breaking allegations of sexual impropriety.
The inability of former Celebrity Apprentice host Trump to score key legislative wins thus far has resembled recent Celebrity Apprentice host Schwarzenegger’s failure to achieve his main goal of restoring fiscal sanity to his state. But Trump’s legacy is more likely to look like Wilson’s remarkable success at driving Latinos out of the GOP.
Trump combined Wilson's seething at immigrants with Schwarzenegger’s ultra-manly, almost campy unorthodoxy that played off his entrenched fame and bipartisan associations. And Trump multiplied both by a shamelessness and disregard for consequences unmatched by any prominent American politician since George Wallace.
So what is Trump’s “Prop 187 moment"?
Was it launching his campaign with the conspiracy theory that Mexico was sending us rapists? Was it his promise to make all undocumented immigrants subject to deportation, which he’s backed up by setting Immigration and Customs Enforcement free to menace “the most vulnerable?” Was it his pardon of Joe Arpaio?
Or will it be Trump’s plan to end DACA after promising these so-called “dreamers” that they could “rest easy?"
Samuel Rodriguez, the leader National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and a Trump adviser, thinks DACA is it. “If the president breaks his promise to us to protect these children, they should be prepared for a mass exodus of the administration’s Hispanic support,” he said in a statement.
Apparently visiting the sins of the parents on their children is too much for evangelicals, who don’t believe the Gospels is just a list of judges from the Federalist Society.
If Rodriguez is correct, Trump could be in the midst of transforming American politics.
Texas is the one state Trump won that if it flipped to Clinton would have cost him the election. Trump won the state’s 38 electoral votes by less than a million votes, taking in an estimated 18% of the Latino vote, which is still better than his 11% share in California.
Latinos in the Lone Star State show up to vote far less often than non-Latino voters. More than half of the state’s more than 10 million Latinos are not even eligible to vote, thanks in no small part to the state GOP’s Jim Crow-like approach to limiting registration and ballot access.
Voter suppression, like attacking immigrants, seems to be a surefire strategy — in the short term. “In not too many years, Texas could switch from being all Republican to all Democrat,” Ted Cruz said in 2012. “If that happens, no Republican will ever again win the White House.”
Trump is doing his best to speed up that switch. The big question is: Has it already begun?