For California Republicans, was Election 2010 debacle a wakeup call?

No Republicans were elected to statewide office in California despite strong gains for Republicans elsewhere. One reason: Republicans ran afoul of the Latino vote in Election 2010.

Damian Dovarganes/AP/file
Members of the mariachi band Los Munecos and volunteers walked through Los Angeles neighborhoods to urge immigrant voters to vote early in Election 2010.

Steve Cooley followed the political playbook perfectly to get elected California attorney general this November.

The three-term Los Angeles County District Attorney piled up endorsements from newspapers, law enforcement, and Latino organizations while trumpeting his record of prosecuting corruption. He led every poll leading up to the election.

But in an evolving California, where immigrants continue to exercise ever-greater influence on politics and society, apparently none of that was enough to overcome a single letter next to Mr. Cooley's name: R.

Cooley's loss to Democrat Kamala Harris contributed to something that has happened only twice since 1882: No Republican was elected to statewide California office. This, in a midterm election that saw Republicans make historic gains in Congress and improve their standing across the country.

This week, a poll released by Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), has thrown a harsh light on Republicans' challenge in California: If they want to win statewide elections consistently, they need to make more headway among California's immigrants.

“If you look at the composition of California compared to elsewhere, you find it has a much more diverse electorate reflected in the Obama coalition, whereas the rest of America is older, whiter, and more conservative … more on the McCain side of things,” says Villanova political scientist Matt Kerbel. “That’s the main reason that the Democrats ran the table there.”

Cooley was a casualty of unprecedentedly high turnout from the Latino voting bloc. Its share of the total vote hit 22 percent, up from 18 percent two years ago, says political commentator Tony Quinn. Immigrant bashing by Republicans helped mobilize Latinos to the polls and to vote heavily Democratic, he adds.

“None of this was Cooley’s fault," says Mr. Quinn. "He did not immigrant bash, and his stand on things like the death penalty for cop killers … was much closer to Latino views on law and order. But that did not matter; all Republicans had to be punished and the Latino leaders saw that they were."

“The days of Republicans winning statewide office – other than with an Arnold Schwarzenegger – [have] certainly passed,” he says.

Independents helped to tip the scales in Democrats' favor, too. In the governor’s race, Democrat Jerry Brown beat Republican Meg Whitman by 13 points with the support of 86 percent of Democrats and 56 percent of independents, according to PPIC.

Brown should pay attention to the PPIC data, says Jessica Levinson, political reform director for the Center for Government Studies.

“If Brown wants to be a two-term governor, it would behoove him not to forget about the center,” says Ms. Levinson. “Almost by definition of their party registration status, it is remains to be seen whether decline-to-state voters who supported him in 2010 will stay with him in 2014.”

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