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California Republicans Try to Reenergize the GOP

The California Republican Party’s willingness to embrace unconventional leadership may provide insights into what the GOP will need to do to win elections nationally in the coming era of the white minority.

Harmeet Dhillon was reluctant to run for office.

For one thing, the attorney from San Francisco is a Sikh, a member of a distinctive ethnic group from the Indian subcontinent. She worried that voters wouldn’t be receptive to a candidate from such an unfamiliar background. She was also concerned that some voters might object to her service on the board of the Northern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Not voters in San Francisco, of course. Being a non-Christian, Indian-American who strongly supports the ACLU, after all, is hardly an electoral handicap there. But Dhillon wasn’t running for elected office in San Francisco; she was running for the vice chairmanship of the California state Republican Party.

For the GOP today, California serves as the boogeyman. Conservative thinkers such as Joel Kotkin see the state’s chronic deficits, towering unfunded pension liabilities and bankrupt municipalities as the embodiment of a Democratic Party run amok. They see California as a cautionary tale of what happens when the Democrats take power.

It wasn’t always so. California is the place the conservative movement was born, the state where conservatism was transformed from an ideology devoted, in the late William Buckley’s words, to “standing athwart history, yelling ‘Stop!,’” into the ideology of Sunbelt prosperity. If last November’s election results offer a guide to the future, it may also be the place the GOP goes to die.

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In 2012, California Republicans endured a brutal shellacking at the polls. Not only did President Obama defeat Republican Mitt Romney by a 23-point margin, Democrats won every election for statewide office. They won two-thirds majorities in both the General Assembly and the state Senate, giving Democrats the ability to raise taxes and make sweeping changes to the state budget without a single Republican vote for the first time since the Great Depression. No Republican in California now holds statewide office. Indeed, only one Republican holds a constitutional office. That official, Michelle Steel, is vice chair of the state Board of Equalization. She’s now running for Orange County supervisor.

California’s last election cycle poses a stark question: What did it mean? Was it a case in which a popular incumbent president swept his party into power? Or does the Republican rout in California reflect a new normal, one where the GOP is shut out of power for the foreseeable future in America’s most populous state?

The answer matters to more than just Californians. With an electorate that is 40 percent Latino and 15 percent Asian-American, California is already more diverse than the country as a whole may ever be. Not until 2040 does the U.S. Census Bureau estimate that the entire country will have a non-white majority. Nonetheless, California offers a window onto our multicultural future. The GOP’s experiences there also suggest a stark conclusion: In a truly multicultural society, white men can’t win.

This will not be a congenial message for many Republicans. “Republicans like to think we are all Americans, what’s wrong with giving the same message to everyone, right?” says Ruben Barrales, who heads GROW Elect, a group whose mission is to build a farm team of Latino politicians in California. But Barrales believes that logic is no longer sustainable.

“Latino voters, like all voters, look to see who the elected officials are on either side of the aisle,” he says. And when they look now, they don’t see many Latino Republicans. They see white guys. “It’s time to broaden our appeal,” he continues, “and the only sensible way I know to do that is to include people.”

Harmeet Dhillon’s campaign for vice chair of the party offers an early test of the California Republican Party’s willingness to embrace unconventional leadership. Her travails—along with the ultimate outcome of her campaign—illustrate the ways in which the California GOP is willing to change and the ways in which it is not. It also provides insights into what the GOP will need to do to win elections nationally in the coming era of the white minority.

Most people don’t associate 1960s California with the conservative movement. Yet its rise is very much a California story. In 1964 at the Republican National Convention in San Francisco, Sen. Barry Goldwater launched the conservative movement with an acceptance speech that famously declared: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Two years later, California elected a self-proclaimed Goldwater Republican governor. That governor, of course, was Ronald Reagan.

In the decades that followed, California became the state where the GOP tested and developed its most effective policies. In the wake of the 1965 Watts riots, the GOP embraced a “tough on crime” strategy that provided it with a crucial electoral edge for more than a generation. In 1978, California’s Proposition 13 and its limits on property tax increases put tax cutting at the center of the national political debate. In the 1980s, by-then-President Ronald Reagan paired anticommunist fervor with a defense spending buildup that supercharged the California economy. California’s prosperity was something the rest of the country could dream of and identify with. Identification was easy for another reason as well. The state actually looked a lot like the rest of the country.

While it may seem hard to believe now, for most of its history—as a state, at least—California, particularly Southern California, prided itself on its lack of diversity. States such as New York and Illinois grew as a result of immigration from abroad. California grew because of domestic migration, mainly from the Midwest. In the first half of the 20th century, Southern California was the destination for what the writer Carey McWilliams described as “the largest internal migration in the history of the American people.” Among their number was Reagan himself, a native son of Dixon, Ill., who arrived in Los Angeles in 1937 to a city that until recently had advertised itself as “an Eden for the Saxon homemaker” and “the white spot of America.”

With the end of the Cold War, the California growth machine stalled. White Californians began to emigrate out of the state. At the same time, there was a surge of immigrants. Just over half came from Mexico and Central America. Another third came from the Pacific Rim, with Eastern Europe, South America and Canada accounting for most of the rest. This in turn gave rise to widespread fears that illegal immigrants were overburdening California’s schools and public services. In 1994, those concerns led to the passage of Proposition 187.

Proposition 187 barred illegal immigrants from receiving any state-funded benefits, such as Medicaid or subsidies for school. Then-Gov. Pete Wilson, a moderate Republican who had served as mayor of San Diego and as a U.S senator, embraced the measure. So did 59 percent of California voters. However, this strong majority masked a distinct ethnic divide. Two-thirds of white Californians voted “yes” on Proposition 187. Two-thirds of California Latinos voted “no.”

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Proposition 187 didn’t have an immediate impact on voter preferences: Latino voters inclined toward the Democratic Party even before its passage. However, many observers of California politics believe the GOP embrace of Proposition 187 solidified the belief among new Californians that the GOP was an anti-immigrant party.

“It was perceived as being a Republican effort that was focused against them,” says GROW Elect’s Barrales. “We can argue all day about whether it actually was, but the perception of 187 was not helpful to closing that gap in the Republican Party.”

It wasn’t just Latinos. Asian immigrants reacted in a similar fashion. Chris Bowman, a longtime GOP activist from San Francisco, notes that San Francisco’s Chinatown “used to vote 56, 57 percent for the Republican Party. But after Proposition 187, that all changed.” Today, Republicans rarely win more than 25 percent of the vote in these neighborhoods. “For a short-term political advantage, the Republican Party in California suffered a nearly mortal long-term, self-inflicted wound,” says Bowman.

As California’s immigrant population grew, the perception grew even more damaging. Immigrants tended to be younger, which skewed them further toward the Democratic Party. California was changing; the GOP wasn’t. Yet for a time, California Republicans managed to avoid confronting the full implications of the demographic shifts, thanks largely to the decennial redistricting in 2000.

“A deal was made to essentially preserve all incumbent members, Republican and Democratic,” says Bill Hauck, a former head of the California Business Roundtable. The deal was successful. Only one incumbent lost a general election congressional race in the 10 years that followed. “So for more than 10 years,” says Hauck, “virtually every election for the state legislature was decided in the primary.” Instead of addressing issues important to new voters, politicians instead felt pressure to address issues that mattered to the base.

Then there was Arnold. Celebrity bodybuilder-turned-movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger’s unexpected dethroning of incumbent Democrat Gov. Gray Davis in 2003 was initially seen as a triumph for the GOP, further evidence that California had not lost its taste for the Grand Old Party. Last November’s election destroyed that illusion. Not only did the GOP lose its ability to block legislation in Sacramento, it lost every ethnic and demographic group in the state, save for white men.

“We have a problem with young people; we’ve got a problem with single people; we’ve got a problem with gay people, with Latinos, with Asians, with blacks and with Jews,” says Republican political consultant Duane Dichiara. A post-election survey conducted for the California Business Roundtable suggests another group the GOP should be concerned about: women. In the 2012 elections, Republicans attracted a mere 21 percent of the female vote.

“We need other voters,” says Barrales. “It’s time to broaden the appeal, broaden our efforts.”

The party is hoping that people like Harmeet Dhillon can do that.

Harmeet Dhillon’s family moved from the Punjab to the United Kingdom in 1969, before settling in the Bronx in 1971, when Dhillon was 2 years old. Five years later, her father, an orthopedic surgeon, relocated the family again, this time to Smithfield, N.C. Dhillon, who’d gone to an orthodox Jewish kindergarten and then to public school in the Bronx, still remembers the welcome sign from the grand dragon of the North Carolina Ku Klux Klan. Fortunately, neither Dhillon nor her parents knew what the Klan was.

The family prospered. For high school, Dhillon enrolled in the North Carolina School for Science and Mathematics, a state-run boarding school for gifted students. From there, she went to Dartmouth College, where she quickly fell in with the provocative conservative news magazine, The Dartmouth Review. By her senior year, she was the magazine’s editor-in-chief, a position that embroiled her in a series of controversies culminating in an appearance on 60 Minutes. After she graduated, Dhillon moved to a job in Washington, D.C., with the conservative Heritage Foundation—and into an arranged marriage with a Sikh doctor. The marriage was a bad one. Her husband, she would say later, beat her repeatedly. They divorced. She moved to Charlottesville and entered law school at the University of Virginia. Soon she was running the conservative Federalist Society and making friends with Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham. After law school, she clerked for a federal judge, then moved to New York for a high-powered, high-paying corporate job, and married another Sikh physician.

The union was a rocky one. When her husband moved back to California, Dhillon followed him in order to try to make the marriage work. He moved to Thousand Oaks; she settled in Palo Alto. The marriage fell apart anyway. Three years later, as she was getting divorced, she moved to San Francisco, even though she saw San Francisco, according to a later interview with the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, as “that lunatic asylum” beside the bay. But Dhillon was now a San Franciscan and volunteered to work for the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign. When she offered to host a debate-watching party, two local members of the Republican Central Committee came to check her out. “Are you the Dartmouth Review Harmeet Dhillon?” the vetters asked her. She assured them she was.

The following year, Dhillon was invited to fill a vacancy on the San Francisco County Central Committee. Three years later, she ran for the state assembly against an incumbent Democrat. Ultimately, she lost, winning only 15 percent of the vote. But that percentage was actually much larger than the number of registered Republicans in her district. She also served as a delegate to the state party. In 2011, she was elected San Francisco County Party chair.

When asked whether the Republican defeat last November was caused by bad messaging or a bad message, Dhillon emphasizes something else—the importance of the messenger. “For the Republican Party to survive, it is going to have to make a conscious effort to run minority candidates,” she says, noting that Democrats have done that successfully. The California Legislature now has half a dozen Democratic Asian-Americans and many more Latinos. However, there are only two Republican Latino assemblyman, she notes. “That is a problem.”

As she sees it, the GOP needs to use marketing savvy—messengers who are attractive and relevant to the voters. “Is a Latino going to do a better job representing Latinos than a white guy?” she asks. “Not necessarily. Is a Latino more likely to get the vote than a white man? Yes. That’s not identity politics. That is human nature.”

Dhillon is not the only California Republican model of diversity. There are also politicians like Ling-Ling Chang, a city council member from Diamond Bar. Chang represents one of the state Republican Party’s major hopes—that they will be able to win the support of Asian-Americans.

Chang moved from Taiwan to Los Angeles when she was 3, making her one of the two-thirds of Asian-Americans living in California to be born overseas. Her father, a dentist, settled the family in Diamond Bar, a small city of 55,000 on the eastern fringe of Los Angeles County. At the time, Diamond Bar was more than 60 percent white; today, Asian-Americans constitute nearly 55 percent of the population.

Chang describes herself as completely apolitical growing up. After a series of jobs in the private sector, in 2005 she ran for an elected position on the local water board. Like a plurality of Californians, Chang was a political independent. Unlike most Californians, she decided to make a conscious effort to choose a party. So she requested mailers from both parties “to educate myself.” After carefully reviewing both parties’ stances on the issue, she decided that she was a Republican.

“It’s really as easy as the saying, ‘Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day. Teach him how to fish, and he eats for a lifetime,’” she says. “That was what really caught me [about the GOP]. It’s the party of opportunity, fiscal responsibility and liberty.”

She handily won election to the water board, defeating a 21-year incumbent. A few years later, she ran for the city council and won again. Last year, she served as Diamond Bar’s mayor.

Republicans look to candidates like Chang as a wedge into the future. Asian-American voters make up 15 percent of the California electorate—nearly 6 million people. Nationwide, Asian-Americans are even more politically important. Asian immigrants constitute the fastest growing ethnic group in the United States. Many Republicans see Asian-Americans, who are more affluent, more educated and more likely to own businesses than Americans as a whole, as natural supporters.

Until recently, many were. Republican presidential candidates routinely won majorities or near majorities of Asian-American votes. Back in 1992, George Herbert Walker Bush won 55 percent of Asian-American votes to Bill Clinton’s 31 percent. But in 2004, a majority of those voters cast their ballot for John Kerry. The Romney campaign vowed to recapture their votes in 2012—and failed in spectacular fashion. Last November, a startling 73 percent of Asian-American voters cast their votes for Barack Obama; a mere 26 percent voted for Mitt Romney. Similarly, in California, only 27 percent of Asian-American voters cast their ballot for Romney.

Many Republicans see reversing this development as the party’s top priority. At a recent appearance at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C., former Florida governor and possible Republican presidential contender Jeb Bush argued that Asian-Americans voters are “the canary in the coal mine” for the GOP. If Republicans can’t win these voters over, the party has virtually no chance to compete for votes in a multicultural society.

Unlike Latinos, who identify strongly with the Democratic Party, 51 percent of Asian-American voters in California do not identify with a political party. As a result, says Michelle Steel of the state Board of Equalization, “you can change Asian-Americans to Republicans much easier.

“The key is relationships,” Steel continues. “Republicans are uncomfortable when they go to a minority community. They are uncomfortable when they hear foreign languages and they can’t understand what is being said. But we have to go everywhere in America.”

Council member Chang acknowledges that sometimes the Republican message is a tough sell. “The perception of the party is that it’s for whites,” she says. Even many young people who describe themselves as fiscally conservative tell her, she says, “‘I can’t be a Republican,’ because they think the party is racist. I hear that all the time.”

That’s not a message Republicans in Sacramento seem to be hearing, though. “We are diverse, we have diversity within the party. We haven’t been very good at showcasing that,” Republican Assembly Leader Connie Conway says. She believes the party is well on the way to competing more effectively in 2016 by focusing on the twin messages of jobs and education. “We are less than two years away from being healthy,” she says.

When presented with such statements, Rocky Chavez, one of two Republican Latinos serving in the General Assembly, demurs. The party’s stance on illegal “immigration has become a code word for intolerance,” he says. “That is hurting them.”

Harmeet Dhillon’s experience as a candidate shows the ways in which intolerance still courses through the GOP—and the way it is being checked. Soon after she announced her candidacy, a member of the central committee of the San Bernardino Republican Party (and a close ally of another candidate for the position of vice chairman) began an Internet campaign against Dhillon, suggesting that she was a Muslim sympathizer who supported jihadist beheadings of captured Westerners.

It was completely untrue, of course. Dhillon certainly doesn’t favor beheadings. Nor, notes this politician of Sikh heritage, do the overwhelming majority of Muslims.

This was exactly the kind of attack Dhillon had worried about when running for office. But then something heartening happened. When Dhillon mentioned the attack to a reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle, the paper ran a story on the controversy. In response, the San Bernardino County party issued a letter of reprimand to the member involved. U.S. Congressman Darrell Issa, the powerful head of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, also publicly denounced the slur. When the state Republican convention met in Sacramento earlier this year, it elected Dhillon to a two-year term as vice chair by a vote of 881 to 227. That makes Dhillon the presumptive front-runner to lead the party in 2017.

Since her election, Dhillon has functioned as the public face of the party. It’s a development party leaders welcome—even as some say symbolism will only carry the party so far. “It’s cute to say it’s not the message, it’s the messenger,” says assembly member Chavez. “But at the end of the day, people want to know, ‘How can this better my life in California?’ Republicans need to put themselves back in that game.”

John is a Governing correspondent covering health care, public safety and urban affairs.
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