In 1994, California Gov. Pete Wilson ran a television ad showing Mexican immigrants dashing across the border as a voice declared, “They keep coming: Two million illegal immigrants in California.” Wilson’s short-term gain—he won both reelection and a ballot measure denying state services to undocumented immigrants—was soon overcome by a Latino backlash that transformed California into an overwhelmingly Democratic state.
So it was more than a little bit rich to see Wilson use a surprise visit at California’s Republican convention on Saturday to endorse Sen. Ted Cruz, warning that the nomination of Donald Trump could spell ruin for the state GOP. Cruz “is not anti-immigrant,” Wilson said, an implicit jab at Trump. “He, as I am, is for legal immigration of the kind that made this country great. And I might point out that he is hardly anti-Latino.”
But Wilson’s words of caution may be too little too late for his beleaguered party. In a state where Latinos make up more than one-third of the adult population, GOP leaders worry that both candidates’ hardline stance on immigration—both promote mass deportation and say they want to build a border wall—could consign the party to another 20 years of irrelevance here.
“I think it’s going to be a disaster,” says Ruben Barrales, the director of Grow Elect, a group that promotes Latino Republican candidates in California. “If you want to see what will happen, just look back. You don’t do the same thing over and over again.”
The party’s share of registered voters here has fallen from 44 percent in the late 1970s to 28 percent today. The main reason has been its failure to attract Latinos—only 18 percent of whom are Republicans.
The party has tried to make a fresh start with a new generation of voters, too young to remember the Wilson years. Since 2011, Grow Elect has helped more than 100 Latino Republicans to victory, mostly to nonpartisan offices where candidates don’t have to declare their party affiliations. Last year, the state party changed its immigration platform to strike references to “illegal aliens” and state that “the Republican Party is pro-immigrant.”
“You would hope by now that things would have changed,” says Mike Madrid, a GOP political consultant who is an expert in Latino voter behavior. But with the rise of Trump, he adds, “I don’t think that it is going to.” Trump has an 87 percent unfavorability rating among California Latinos, “which is extraordinary!” Madrid says. “I have never seen negatives that high.”
“I don’t think that the Republican Party has it in its DNA to adjust to the cultural changes,” Madrid continues. “And the smaller the party becomes, the more rigid and homogenous it becomes, and the less it has the capacity to reach out.”
This challenge was on stark display at the state GOP convention on Friday. To prevent Trump from entering the Burlingame hotel where the events were held, hundreds of Latino protesters, some waving Mexican flags and carrying a Trump piñata, erected a human blockade. “We went under a fence, then through a fence,” Trump joked after making it inside. “It was like crossing the border.”
The crowd inside the Hyatt convention center chuckled, but there were very few Latinos on Trump’s side of the hotel border. A meeting the following day of the party’s National Hispanic Assembly drew only a handful of people. The gathering took place in an outdoor courtyard not even listed on the convention center map. The party’s press desk couldn’t tell reporters how to find it.
A booth in the center’s exhibitor hall manned by FWD.us, an immigration reform group, sought to convince passing Republicans to reject Cruz and Trump’s harsh immigration stances—without much success. A passing delegate wondered if the group supported a border wall. “We’re for finishing fencing,” a staffer said cautiously, handing over the group’s policy agenda. “Finishing fencing is in there.”
Two booths down was a more popular table manned by GOP Senate candidate Ron Unz. Slogan: “Keep English. Vote Unz!”
Contrary to popular belief, there are Latinos supporting Trump. He has so far won the Republican Latino vote in all states except Texas. “The Latinos that are opposed to Trump are the illegals,” says Luisa Aranda, the owner of a property management company in Brentwood who’d come to hear Trump dressed in a “Latinos For The Wall” shirt. “They are coming to take advantage of what we are giving them, and we are giving them way too much.”
Yet California history suggests voters like Aranda won’t lift the GOP out of its demographic death spiral. Madrid thinks the GOP’s failure to learn that lesson could spell doom for the party here and beyond. “I am very bearish on the prospects of the Republican Party in the Latino community,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be that way nationally, but unfortunately we are choosing as a party to move in the California direction.”
The only Latino state assemblyman I came across at the convention, Rocky Chavez of San Diego, had come to voice his opposition to the GOP front-runners. “The vast majority of Assembly members aren’t here,” he pointed out. “They are trying to win their seats, because they know the Trump and Cruz message will assure that they will lose. Think about that.”