What has become of the California Republican Party?

Less than a week before the general election, the party that has controlled the Governor's Office for the last 16 years, that once sent Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to the White House, seems poised for an election-day wipeout. Attorney General Dan Lungren is headed for what may be a double-digit drubbing. Treasurer Matt Fong, an amiable cipher, is having great difficulty dispatching Senator Barbara Boxer, long regarded as one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the land. The polling on the six down-ticket statewide offices indicates that Republicans will have to scramble to hold on to two of the least significant – secretary of state and insurance commissioner – while the Democrats have a good shot at winning the rest. And the Democrats are certain to maintain, and likely to expand, their majorities in both houses of the state Legislature.

At the risk of indulging in that most dicey of genres, the pre-mortem: What went wrong?

The problem begins with Lungren, who has run one of the most lunkheaded campaigns in modern California history. In many ways, it's been a nostalgic campaign – resurrecting such GOP golden oldies as “I'm more pro-death penalty than my opponent” and the “Three-Strikes Samba.” These were the kinds of themes that worked for Lungren's mentor, George Deukmejian, in his successful gubernatorial campaigns in the '80s, and they reflect Lungren's deepest beliefs, as they did the Duke's.

But in the 16 years since the Duke edged out Tom Bradley for the governor's job, the Republican Party has transformed itself from the arch-foe of criminals into the electoral wing of the National Rifle Association. And so Lungren, out of both political necessity and personal belief, has been the most reluctant, and at times indifferent, enforcer of the state's assault-weapon ban. Even more ludicrous, the Republican running to succeed Lungren as attorney general – Chief Deputy A.G. Dave Stirling – is on record as opposing all gun controls (which is why he's likely to lose next Tuesday to a Bay Area liberal, state Senator Bill Lockyer).

There are deeper reasons, though, why the law-and-order party is running second this year. The first is that Gray Davis, by reiterating ad nauseum his support for capital punishment, has essentially nullified much of Lungren's attack. The second is that the drop in violent crime all across the country has enabled the public to focus its attention on other issues, such as education, where the Republican message is a good deal more muddled. Indeed, the declining importance of the crime issue is shaping up as a disaster for California Republicans, much as the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War – by taking away their popular advantage on foreign policy – have been a disaster for the national GOP. It requires them to change the subject, which is something Dan Lungren clearly doesn't know how to do.

Nor is the self-marginalization of the Republicans confined to issues of crime and punishment. Lungren's longstanding opposition to abortion has posed a problem for him all year long. His chief approach to education has been to tout the virtues of vouchers – giving voters the sense that he's an ideological zealot when it comes to fixing the schools, while Davis has been projecting himself as a pragmatic tinkerer. (Actually, Davis has said almost nothing specific about his plans for schools, but with Lungren lost in the mists of right-wing dogma, he hasn't had to.) For his part, Dave Stirling has questioned whether the Attorney General's Office should really join the omnibus lawsuit against the tobacco industry – probably the most widely popular civil lawsuit the state has been party to in years. Other Republican nominees for statewide office, including lieutenant-governor candidate Tim Leslie and treasurer candidate Curt Pringle, also bring long records of involvement in far-right causes to their campaigns.

By opting to position themselves as the party of far-right purity, the California Republicans have diverged considerably from the Republican parties in most other major states. Outside California, Republican gubernatorial candidates are likely to prevail in every other large state next week. From George W. Bush in Texas to George Pataki in New York, they've run (and in some cases governed) as centrists, backers of greater accountability in – but also greater funding for – education, opponents by deed if not by word of the anti-government mania that's defined the congressional wing of their party, the Gingrichites. Lungren, by contrast, is a Gingrichite through and through, a onetime congressional classmate and current ideological soulmate of the Newtster himself.

Lungren's affinity for the congressional version of Republicanism is proving particularly problematic on the question of Clinton. From the outset of his campaign, Lungren has run as something of a moral scourge of Democratic deviants. He filmed ads touting his own character and timed their airing to coincide with the release of the Starr report. This proved to be a major misreading of the California electorate, however. A recent L.A. Times poll revealed that among potential voters who say the Lewinsky scandal is prodding them to go to the polls, more will vote Democratic than Republican. California has a long history of embracing “isms,” but Puritanism isn't one of them.

To the accusation that he's run a tone-deaf campaign, Lungren can justly respond that many of his themes are battle-tested, that they worked for George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson, and there was every expectation they'd work for him. Which brings us to the foremost problem for the California GOP:

The state has changed. At one level, the Republicans have lost their wedge issues – not just crime, but also immigration. As Latinos have flooded into the electorate, and as a rising economy has diminished the mass xenophopia of the early '90s, the kind of campaign that Pete Wilson waged around Proposition 187 has become totally out-of-bounds for any party with aspirations of winning statewide office.

At a deeper level, though, the transformation of the state electorate poses an even more serious challenge for California Republicans. For in one election after another, the fastest-growing part of the electorate – the Latino part – has demonstrated its clear support for government's taking an activist role on issues of economic opportunity. Latinos supported the 1996 initiative raising the state minimum wage by a margin six points higher than that of African-Americans, long the state's most liberal constituency. Last year, L.A. County Latinos led support for a school-bond measure by the same differential.

For years, Republicans have spoken gleefully about their prospects among Latino voters, noting that, as immigrants and Catholics, Latinos were more likely to share the traditional cultural values of the GOP than the laid-back standards of the Democrats. That may be true as far as it goes (Gray Davis, it should be noted, is nobody's idea of laid-back). But it's turned out that Latinos have been far more inclined to a Democratic view of activist government than to the Republican infatuation with the free market, and this has proved decisive at the polls. Latinos have had ample experience with the actual, existing California market; they disproportionately hold low-wage jobs with no health benefits.

Next week, California's Latinos are likely to prove crucial to the Democrats' recapture of state government. And in years to come, they are likely to provide a strong base of support for Democratic programs that increase the public investment in schools, that raise the minimum wage and provide more accessible health-care programs, that take the rough edges off the market.

The Republican's California troubles aren't solely self-inflicted, of course. Bill Clinton and Gray Davis have both repositioned the Democrats here into a party that's more centrist on crime while maintaining at least a rhetorical commitment to activist government. But Democrats have been repositioning themselves all around the country, and only in California are they expected to do very well come Tuesday. The difference isn't just the Latinoization of the electorate. It's also the Republicans' anti-statist zealotry, which, in the new politics of California, can only be viewed as election-day suicide.

LA Weekly