In the face of the red-clad onslaught sweeping across the nation unrelentingly, California's leaders rallied the troops to take one last stand for sanity and compassion. "HERE!", they shouted defiantly at the sea of red allayed against them. "HERE, BUT NO FURTHER!" And the $200 million onslaught broke against the California border like waves upon a high cliff. And in the end...it was over with nary a whimper.
So read my triumphalist status on Facebook as the election returns came in, and not without some justification. In what was otherwise a bleak night for Democrats, California performed above expectations, overcoming a massive funding disadvantage to potentially sweep every single statewide election, gain a seat in the state Legislature, and lose only one member of Congress: blue dog Jim Costa (CA-20) from the more conservative Central Valley.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. Not this year. This was the year that Democrats had a gubernatorial nominee in Jerry Brown who was too old and disconnected to be able to appeal to the Democratic base that he would need. This was the year that Meg Whitman would absolutely overwhelm the market with her unlimited personal fortune and allow the other Republicans not to have to worry about resources. This was year that Barbara Boxer was supposed to get her stiffest challenge yet from a "moderate Republican" in Carly Fiorina who would be able to peel off the women that Boxer needed to win re-election in an uphill environment. The year that there wouldn't be any way for Democrats to hold the office of attorney general because they had nominated a multiracial woman from San Francisco to run for the top law enforcement office in the state. The year where we could have also lost the spot of lieutenant governor because we had a supposedly polarizing figure in Gavin Newsom going up against a "moderate" Republican Latino, Abel Maldonado.
None of it happened. The statewide races were all routs, with the exception of the attorney general's race, where Harris has for most of the counting held a sliver of a lead. So the question is...why did the red tidal wave halt at the Sierra Nevadas? And how can Democrats elsewhere take advantage?
One answer lies in the voting patterns of non-whites, who overwhelmingly supported the Democratic ticket. While Democrats weren't the most effective at the national level in inspiring their traditional minority constituencies to come to the ballot box anywhere else, it was a different story in California, where Latinos comprised a whopping 22 percent of the state's electorate, according to the Los Angeles Times. And they voted overwhelmingly Democratic, supporting Brown over Whitman by a margin of 55 points. Whitman said she wanted to be "tough as nails" on undocumented immigrants; her campaign chair was Pete Wilson, who is still persona non grata because of the odious Proposition 187, which denied all public services to undocumented immigrants; she gave a callous and condescending debate response to an undocumented student who inquired as to her position on the DREAM act; and if that weren't enough, the scandal regarding the treatment of her undocumented housekeeper whom she unceremoniously fired after many years of service perpetuated the existing narrative about Whitman's hostility to Latinos, and towards lower-income people in general. The only way Whitman could have turned off Latino voters more would have been to emulate Sharron Angle's campaign strategy. The increased turnout among these voters, who lean towards Democrats, likely caused a ripple effect in many of the downballot races.
Whitman's money also might have worked against her: it's hard to spend $150 million of one's own money in a race without being perceived negatively for doing so--and indeed, even Republican consultant agreed that the spending sprees of Whitman, and to a lesser degree Carly Fiorina, were a turnoff to the less partisan voters that they would have needed to win in a Democratic-leaning state. It may not be a policy issue, but people tend to vote on perceptions of emotion and character: speaking from personal experience, it was far easier to convince an unengaged voter to support Jerry Brown by mentioning Whitman's investment of her personal fortune into the race than it was to argue for or against any particular policy position.
It's ironic that the very things that Republicans had counted on to win across the country--unlimited cash and the resentment of older white voters against "the other"--ended up backfiring in California. And the Republicans know it:
State Republican Party Chairman Ron Nehring said the election results confirmed that party leaders and candidates needed to build stronger relationships with non-whites, and not just before an election.
"The reality is that Democrats have strong relationships with urban and immigration communities that Republicans have not had, and that must change," he said. "It is not only a matter of politics; it is a matter of mathematics."
But Nehring stressed that he was not advocating a change in Republican policy. "Republicans have stressed for decades that we support legal immigration and oppose illegal immigration," he said. "Despite saying that, that message has not resonated. It is not only a matter of how we talk about this issue, but how other people hear us."
At an intellectual level, Republican leaders understand that unless they can make inroads with nonwhite communities, they are destined to be a minority party. But at a practical level, their older white male base is motivated by the same policies and rhetoric that achieve just the opposite effect--and achieving shorter-term electoral success always seems to take priority.
Eventually, the electorate of the rest of the country is going to start to look much more like that of California. A surge in motivation by their base, combined with a dissatisfaction with the Democratic brand, may have given the Republicans a wave cycle, but unlimited money and anti-immigrant politics won't be a winning campaign strategy for too much longer. Democrats would do well to get ahead of the game in this department by making corporate spending more of an issue and tackling comprehensive immigration reform to help secure the burgeoning Latino vote.
It might cost some more votes among whites in the same way that the civil rights push lost the South. But it's hard to get too much worse than it already is: a majority of us voted for Christine O'Donnell.