After the 2012 Republican disaster it became apparent to many GOP officeholders that they had to adapt to the new demographic realities of California or join their many former colleagues as ex-officeholders.  Three legislators are leading the way towards a Republican Party that can still be relevant.

Assemblyman Jeff Gorell (R-Camarillo), Sen. Anthony Canella (R-Ceres) and Sen. Andy Vidak (R-Hanford) all hold “borrowed districts”; that is seats that are mostly Democratic.  President Obama carried all their districts in both 2008 and 2012, as did Gov. Brown in 2010, and each won with less than 55 percent in their most recent elections.

In other words, they are holding office despite their party label, not because of it.  Gorell is the only Ventura County Republican in the legislature; Cannella the only Republican representing any part of the central coast; and Vidak the only Republican to pick up a former Democratic Senate seat in a decade.  They must be doing something right.

Gorell, elected in 2010, spent much of his first term as a Naval reserve Lieutenant Commander in Afghanistan.  After an unusually close re-election in 2012, Gorell decided his voters wanted a legislator willing to work across the aisle with majority Democrats, but that turned out not to be easy as Democrats can and do ignore Republicans when it comes to policy matters.

Gorell found an issue when Gov. Brown decided to abolish California’s Enterprise Zone but was looking for some cover to improve the state’s business climate.  Gorell helped negotiate a change to the legislation that extended a statewide sales tax exemption on manufacturing equipment and added new hiring credits for businesses in areas with the highest unemployment and poverty.  California manufacturers ended up much happier with the final bill than they had expected, and Gorell proved Republicans can still have an impact on legislation.

Cannella has actually found a way to get his own bills through the Democratic legislature, also a rarity.  In October, Brown signed his SB 255, outlawing so-called “revenge pornography.”  Both he and Gorell have proven it is possible to be a legislator (that’s what they are paid to be) even within the minority party.

Vidak, just elected to the Senate last summer, has taken a leaf from their playbook, but he’s had a special issue to work with.  Vidak has become the legislature’s most outspoken opponent of California’s floundering high speed rail plan.  It is winning issue for him, since the initial segment runs from Madera to Bakersfield, right through the heart of his district, and is bitterly opposed by local taxpayers and landowners.  Last month Vidak’s constituents won a major victory when a Sacramento judge ruled that the rail plan violates its own authorizing legislation.   Not only is Vidak winning points with his constituents by his vocal opposition — “This runaway money train needs to be returned to the station before another taxpayer penny is spent,” —  but he is helping put Republicans on the popular side of a big spending issue for a change.

However, these three legislators are showing the most leadership on the biggest issue threatening Republican survival in California: demographic changes.  The mushrooming number of Asian and Latino voters over the past two decades is the fundamental driver of the Republican collapse in this state.   Each of these legislators has witnessed that that first hand with the growing ethnic voter population within their own districts: Gorell’s is 31 percent non-white voters, Cannella’s is 48 percent, Vidak’s a whopping 60 percent.

But within these ethnic populations are large numbers of middle class Asian and Latino professionals and small business owners, as well as socially conservative voters.  They have voted Democratic not because they agree with the cultural and economic liberalism of California Democrats, but because of a perception that Republicans don’t like them, a perception driven by a xenophobic GOP reaction to immigration reform. Understanding that, Gorell, Cannella and Vidak have championed comprehensive immigration reform.

Immigration reform at the national level seems unlikely in the short term.  That’s because of a Republican backlash against “amnesty” for illegal immigrants, and a Democratic loss of interest in real border security.  But ultimately the issue of what to do with 11 million illegal aliens in this country needs to be faced. Gorell, Cannella and Vidak believe Republicans need to be part of a comprehensive immigration solution, not just continue pretending the 11 million illegals will “self-deport” if we do nothing.

In September, 15 GOP legislators led by Cannella and Gorell wrote to California Republican House members asking for a vote on legislation including, “thoughtful and strong border security, employer sanctions and opportunity for undocumented residents to earn their way to full citizenship, but only behind those who have applied to become citizens through the current citizenship process.”

Vidak followed up with his own letter: “We need commonsense reform that provides strong border security and creates an immigration system that provides legal status so that our friends and neighbors can come out of the shadows.  We need compassionate reform that does not break up families. And we need reform that helps further integrate these hardworking people into our society and communities.”

Of course this is what immigration reform has to be.  Fully 40 percent of illegal immigrants actually entered the country legally and overstayed their visas (in California it may be higher) and the government has no idea who these people are. California farmers need a reliable and legal workforce; illegals in the shadows often are not paying their proper taxes, are not insured, and until recently could only drive illegally.  It is a broken system that needs a sensible fix.

All three legislators will face the voters next year; Cannella and Vidak in their heavily Democratic Senate districts, Gorell in a congressional race against freshman Rep. Julia Brownley (D-Oak Park).  If the 2012 results are replicated next year, they will join the legions of defeated California Republicans.  But by their willingness to cross the aisle for good public policy and their leadership on immigration reform they are sending a different signal, and one that says there is still room in California for smart, thoughtful and effective Republicans.