How Republicans Misplayed the Race Card in 2012 – Just Like they Did in 1994

Tony Quinn
Political Analyst

Eighteen long years ago, Gov. Pete Wilson in his 1994 re-election campaign injected the poison of immigrant bashing into the California body politic, and for 18 years this poison metastases into a cancer that slowly choked the California Republican Party to death.  But in 2012, the national Republicans played the same poisonous game in state after state, and helped destroy any chance for Mitt Romney to be elected president.

Wilson began this process in 1994 by championing a ballot measure denying public services to undocumented immigrants in his effort to win re-election.  At that very moment, California’s Latino community was emerging into the middle class, and moving into Republican-held legislative and congressional districts.  Latinos did not see this as just denying services to illegal aliens but as an assault on all Latinos, legal or not, and, in fact, on all persons of color.

Over 18 years, Republicans lost district after district but learned nothing.  When the California DREAM Act, allowing undocumented students to apply for financial aid, came up in the legislature this year every Republican voted no.  Latinos took note, and on Election Day turned out in monster numbers to give Republicans a solid beating and helped hand Democrats two thirds majorities in both houses of the legislature.

Analysts, this one included, failed to appreciate the extent of raw detest of Republicans by an overwhelming majority of people of color in California, not only Latinos and African Americans, but Asian Americans as well.  The California business community spent many millions of dollars trying to elect some very fine GOP candidates in marginal districts and lost every single one of them (a Stockton Senate seat is still up in the air).  Their pollsters and consultants drank the kool aide that minority turnout would be “moderate” this year (confession, so did I, writing on this  page that President Obama would win by 14 points and have no coattails; instead he will win by 22 points and have plenty of coattails).  Minority voters came out at a much higher rate than anyone thought.  Latino turnout will set a record at 22 percent of the state electorate, according to exit polls.

But amazingly, having 18 years of Republican self-immolation over race and immigrants in California, the national Republicans promptly did the same thing.  There was Mitt Romney’s loose lips about immigration in the primaries that assured a huge Latino vote to defeat him, and indeed he received four percent fewer Latino votes in 2012 than Sen. McCain did in 2008.  This help cost him battleground states Colorado and Nevada.

On top of that is the self-inflected wound of trying to suppress minority voting.  This took the form of voter identification laws and reduced voting hours.  It is a perfect example of Republican overreach; several GOP legislatures elected in 2010 passed voter ID laws in 2011.  Voter identification is sound principle, one cannot buy computer ink at Staples without an ID, being asked to show some ID to vote is hardly irrational. States like Indiana and Georgia have voter ID laws that are constitutional and deny no one the ability to cast a ballot.

But that was not good enough for some Republicans. In Pennsylvania, the GOP legislature passed a draconian voter ID law that the Republican House leader claimed would deliver the state to Romney by repressing black turnout in Philadelphia.  A judge put the law on hold and Philadelphia blacks came out in huge numbers; Pennsylvania was never in doubt.

But Florida and Ohio were.  In Florida, GOP Gov. Rick Scott championed a bill to reduce early voting days, clearly aimed at suppressing minority turnout as minorities tend to vote early.  The upshot was that irritated black and Latino voters came out in droves. Romney did far worse with Florida Latinos than McCain did, actually losing the Cuban vote.  He lost Florida by just 74,000 votes, based almost entirely on enhanced minority turnout.  Governor Scott better watch his backside when he runs for re-election in 2014; Latinos have long memories.

But Ohio is the piece d’resistence.  Here GOP Secretary of State Jon Husted tried to limit early voting days and hours in a not very well disguised effort to decrease African American turnout.  Blacks have been a majority of early voters in Democratic cities like Cleveland and Dayton.  “When they went after Big Mama’s voting rights, they made all of us mad,” said Rev. Tony Minor, coordinator of the Ohio African American Ministers Leadership Council.  Well Big Mama and all her friends came out; the black Ohio electorate increased from 11 percent in 2008 to 15 percent in 2012. In other words, President Obama got a larger black vote in key battleground Ohio in 2012 than he did in 2008.

Anyone looking at California over the past 18 years could have told you the price paid for being racist and xenophobic.  But nobody bothered to look at California, even though we are the nation’s trendsetter.  Michael Barone, the scholarly election historian at the American Enterprise Institute; Karl Rove, architect of GOP victories past; and a bevy of Fox New analysts all predicted a Romney landslide based on a voter profile that did not exist.  None of them saw that if you go after minority voting rights, just like if you run on immigrant bashing, minorities will come out and thump you good.

Perhaps they all need to take a trip to California and sift through the political ashes.  The party that 32 years ago gave America Ronald Reagan has disappeared, like Chief Inspector Dreyfus in the last Pink Panther movie, in small puff of smoke.

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