California Democrats need to pay attention to Latino voters or pay heavy political price

California Democrats often behave as if their domination of state government were a God-given right, theirs forevermore.

They forget it wasn’t always so, and they sometimes forget who gave them that dominant status.

This was a classical “purple” state through the latter half of the 20th Century, with governors mostly Republicans named Reagan, Deukmejian, Knight, Knowland and Wilson, most of whom served two terms each. The only Democrats breaking up their hegemony were Pat and Jerry Brown from 1958-66 and 1974-82 and Gray Davis, elected in 1998 just after the state’s great leftward shift.

That change occurred in 1994 and the two subsequent years, after Gov. Pete Wilson strongly backed the anti-illegal immigrant Proposition 187, causing more than 2.5 million non-citizen Latinos to file for citizenship, become politically conscious, and then register and vote. Almost all became loyal Democrats in an unprecedented mass backlash against Wilson, whose name quickly became anathema among almost all Latino groups and individuals.

The direct result is that only one Republican has reached elected statewide here office in this century: the former movie muscleman Arnold Schwarzenegger, elected in part because many younger Latinos thought it might be cool to have a “governator.”

But California Latinos stuck with Democrats in every other modern election.

Now comes a warning to this state’s Democrats that they had better pay far more attention to this key element of their electoral coalition or they could pay a heavy price.

An inkling of this could be seen last year when Latinos here voted against incumbent President Donald Trump by “only” about a 65-35% margin, not enough to give him any chance of winning California, but still far better than any Republican running statewide since Reagan.

Then, early this month, California Democrats who were looking should have seen another very big warning sign in the outcomes of by-election votes in Virginia and New Jersey. In Virginia, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe lost his bid for a return to the statehouse by about 2%. Detailed polling in Virginia was unreliable, both before the election and in exit surveys, but polling place observers clearly saw that Latino support for McAuliffe dipped after he advocated in a televised debate against allowing parents much control over school curriculum.

“We probably don’t know who won the Hispanic vote or by how much, because of unreliable polling,” Eduardo Gammarra, professor of Latin American studies at Florida International University and a regular pollster among Latinos, told a reporter. “But…my research is that we are seeing a real message for the Democrats, who are not getting behind issues that speak strongly to Latinos. We’re seeing a shift.”

What he says has direct application to California. Not only has President Biden been lukewarm in changing Donald Trump’s immigration policies that long offended Hispanics, like keeping asylum candidates in Mexico for indefinite periods, but California Democrats’ biggest issues these days don’t appear to have much appeal for most Latino voters.

There is the state’s big push for more housing, despite uncertainty over who might build new units or buy them. This policy makes many in Latino neighborhoods fear gentrification, being forced out of their long-term homes to make way for more expensive new housing.

There’s the new law calling for the elimination of small gasoline- or natural gas-fueled machines like lawnmowers and leaf blowers, imposing a new expense on tens of thousands of independently contracting workers, many of them Latinos.

There’s the thrice-attempted end to cash bail, which keeps thousands of predators off streets in the state’s many Latino residential areas.

The list of Democratic moves with real or potential harm to Latinos is much longer, but those three examples demonstrate clearly that causes like climate change or liberal ideas of fairness trump the wishes of many Latino voters among priorities of today’s California Democrats.

This tendency began causing attrition among Latinos voting in 2020 and could increase greatly over the next several years if current trends in Latino voting behavior continue.

That can be enough to throw close elections to Republicans, as it apparently did in Virginia and almost did in New Jersey this month. But the consequences of such a shift would be much larger if it became reality in California.

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