The Final Indignity: How Republicans Lost a Safe Seat

Tony Quinn
Political Analyst

For 26 days, Lancaster council member Ron Smith, a Republican, was an Assemblyman-elect, that is until the very last votes were counted in Los Angeles County on Sunday and by 145 votes Smith lost his seat to Democrat Steve Fox.  Smith came out of election night several thousand votes ahead but a huge glut of late provisional ballots cost him the seat.  “There is a political group that has learned how to manipulate the election by playing with provisionals,” huffed Smith.  He’s right; it is called the voters.

Smith’s loss is typical of the self inflicted wounds that have destroyed the Republican Party in California, leaving it with fewer legislators than any time in the state’s history.

Let’s look at Smith’s district.  According to the census, it is 42 percent Latino, 14 percent black and four percent Asian.  It is only 38 percent non-Hispanic white.  And among voters, a quarter are Latino.  So what does Smith do; look at his webpage and you’ll see that, “Ron opposes in-state tuition for illegal immigrants.”  There’s that signal that if he were in Sacramento he would surely oppose the DREAM Act to allow children brought to California before the age of 16 and who have met all the educational requirements to apply for financial aid.  It is a signal to Latinos that says, even if you obey all the laws and are illegal through no fault of your own we still don’t want you to get an education.

But Latinos can read, and they know the Republican position that sends the same signal that “Irish need not apply” or “Jews unwelcome here” to past immigrants.  And they know how to do just what the Irish and Jews did a long time ago: they vote.

Smith raised and spent about $285,000 on his campaign, but all of that was in the primary.  Once he was the only Republican in the runoff he coasted, assured of election in this “safe” Republican district.  And his opponent Fox, raised only $20,000 and loaned himself another $40,000 – he had no organized state Democratic support.

So what’s the problem? Well, over the summer local Democrats put on a big registration drive in this middle class district, as they did across the state and using the new online registration signed up a whole lot of new voters.  And guess who they were: loads of young Latinos, citizens and native Californians, who have learned to read and write, no thanks to the Republicans, and know who their friends are and who they are not.  Because they were new voters, many were not on the precinct rolls, so they cast provisional ballots.  And that is who manipulated the election, Mr. Smith.  The new voters who voted.

It was obvious that change was occurring in this Assembly district.  Since January, Democrats added 7,513 new voters to just 3,394 new Republicans, and what had been a formerly safe Republican district was no longer. The California Target Book, of which I am a co-editor, tagged this district after the Primary as no longer safe Republican and placed the race on its “Watch List.” The GOP poobahs in Sacramento, however, bought the kool aid that new voters and Latinos would not turn out this year, and did nothing to save Smith from the onslaught that occurred.

Ron Smith joins an interesting list of GOP candidates who thought for sure they were going to win but who lost because of Latino voter strength.  There is Bill Berryhill, favored for a Senate district in Stockton; Jeff Miller, running for an open Senate seat in Riverside; Tony Strickland, running for Congress in Ventura; Chris Norby, running for re-election for the Assembly in Orange County.  And what do all of them have in common: they all ran in districts with a growing Latino vote and they all voted against the DREAM Act.

Democrats actually failed to make the gains they could have in this election; there are about half a dozen newly-elected Republicans in districts like Smith’s who faced unknown and unfunded Democrats in 2012 but still had mediocre showings because of Latino turnout in their districts.  If the progressive agenda of dismantling Proposition 13 and increasing oil and other business taxes is to become a reality, Democrats need to defeat these Republicans in 2014.  They saw how it can be done in the Smith district; they will be waiting and ready next time.

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