U.S. President Donald Trump is gambling that his battle to build a border wall, which is leading to the longest federal government shutdown on record, will continue to pay political dividends into next year’s presidential election.
But his party could take a lesson from a similar fight over illegal immigration in California that took place decades earlier. It proved to be a cautionary tale for the state’s Republican Party in how policies that boost elections results in the short term can have devastating long-term consequences.
In 1994, badly lagging his Democratic opponent heading into an election, California’s Republican governor Pete Wilson embraced an anti-immigrant ballot initiative aimed at getting conservative voters to the polls.
Proposition 187, known as the “Save Our State” measure, advocated for cutting off state services to California’s growing population of undocumented immigrants. This would make it illegal for them to visit the doctor, or send their children to school. An election ad from that year depicted shadowy figures streaming across the California-Mexico border as a voice warned: “They keep coming: Two million illegal immigrants in California.”
California voters initially took to the message, which promised to save hundreds of millions of dollars and help plug a massive hole in the state’s budget. The ballot measure passed with 60 per cent of the vote, and polls showed it even drew support from a sizable share of Latino voters.
Proposition 187 never came into force, however. It was struck down by a federal district court and the state government eventually abandoned an appeal.
But the move helped Mr. Wilson easily win re-election. Republicans retook a majority in the state legislature for what has, so far, been the last time.
Yet it wouldn’t take long for California’s Republican Party to erase the short-term election gains.
Proposition 187 is largely considered the reason why California’s Latino voter registration surged in the years after the 1994 election, as did the number of new applications for citizenship by Mexican nationals living legally in the state.
Hispanic residents, once seen as swing voters who could be attracted to a Republican message of lower taxes and family values, abandoned the party in droves. By last year, they made up just 11 per cent of California’s Republican voters.
The state party has struggled ever since to recover. Between 1996 and 2006, California’s Republican delegation to Congress shrunk to 20 from 25. Last year, California voters sent just seven Republicans to Congress out of 53 seats. There are now more voters registered as independents in California than as Republicans.
Proposition 187 “passed by a huge margin of victory,” said Peter Schey, a prominent human-rights lawyer based in Los Angeles and one of the early opponents of the ballot measure. “And yet, over time, pushing those sort of hot-button issues dissipated. And, in retrospect, people looked at that and said: ‘This is bad news.’ ”
State Republican leaders have pointed to demographic changes that have turned California into a minority-majority state for the drop in the party’s support, and warned that the national Republican Party faces similar challenges if it continues to focus its efforts too narrowly on white voters.
California is the “canary in the coal mine” for the national Republican Party, former California Republican Party chairman Jim Brulte told Capital Public Radio last month. “We’re the leading edge of demographic change. And that demographic change is coming to communities in your state, as well.”
But there is evidence that California’s Republicans have lost white voters as well, although the transformation has been slow. White voters supported Republican gubernatorial candidates as recently as 2010, and narrowly backed Mitt Romney over Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential election. But just 45 per cent voted for Mr. Trump in 2016, and only 43 per cent supported Republican John Cox for governor last year, the worst showing for a Republican gubernatorial candidate since the 1950s.
The steady drop in support has left California’s Republicans in a Catch-22: As its base has grown steadily older, whiter and more conservative, the party has come under increasing pressure to embrace hard-line policies that are seen as out of step with the majority of California voters.
Last year, Mr. Cox campaigned in support of Mr. Trump’s plan to build a border wall, even though polls show three-quarters of Californians are against the idea.
In the race to elect a party chairman next month, front-runner Travis Allen, a state assemblyman and Trump supporter, has argued the party needs to move even further to the right in order to distinguish itself from the Democrats.
That approach has alienated the state’s moderate Republicans, who have started advocating for the creation of new, third political party that can appeal to California’s large segment of fiscally conservative, socially moderate voters.
“The Grand Old Party is dead,” Kristin Olsen, former Republican leader in the state assembly, declared in November. “Partly because it has failed to separate itself from today’s toxic, national brand of Republican politics.”
Increasingly, they warn that the Republicans should learn from California’s mistakes.
"What the national Republican Party should do,” departing California Republican chairman Mr. Brulte told a researcher in 2016, “is take a look at what the California Republican Party has done – and do absolutely the opposite.”