No Longer the Third Rail: Immigration makes a political comeback in California

By Mark Krikorian on October 9, 2003

National Review Online, October 9, 2003

Good politicians try to avoid the pitfall of believing their own press releases. But Republicans in California have spent the past decade believing their opponents' press releases, at least with regard to immigration.

Conventional wisdom among the elite has been that the GOP collapsed in the state because Gov. Pete Wilson made a Faustian bargain in his 1994 reelection campaign by latching on to Proposition 187, which barred illegal aliens from access to many public services. He won, but as the story goes, the party has been getting clobbered there ever since because Hispanic voters turned on them.

As a result, Republicans followed the Democrats' playbook on immigration in the next two gubernatorial elections; neither Dan Lungren in 1998 (who won only 38 percent of the vote) nor Bill Simon in 2002 (42 percent) said anything critical about immigration's massive impact on the state. They were wiped out, and the Democrats took every statewide office and majorities in both houses of the legislature. This time, immigration was one of the signature issues of the campaign, and a Republican won.

So, let's see - GOP uses immigration in 1994, and wins. GOP concedes the issue to the Democrats in 1998 and 2002, and is annihilated. GOP uses immigration again in 2003, and wins. Does anyone notice a pattern here?

The very first issue that arose when Arnold entered the race was his past support for Prop. 187 - which he did not back away from. Even worse, the demonic Pete Wilson was cochairman of Arnold's campaign, and most of Arnold's staff were former Wilson people. Also, Arnold immediately denounced the new law granting driver's licenses to illegal aliens, signed by Gov. Davis in a desperate attempt to shore up Hispanic support. And to top it off, Arnold's main opponent to succeed Davis was a well-known Hispanic Democrat who had taken the lead in opposing Prop. 187.

There was obviously a lot more going on in this election than immigration, but if the bipartisan consensus had been correct about illegal immigration being radioactive for Republicans, Arnold could not have won. And yet, not only did he win, but he and the other major candidate who had something critical to say about illegal immigration - State Sen. Tom McClintock - got a combined total of 62 percent of the vote.

It would be hard to deny that their opposition to illegal immigration helped energize many voters to go to the polls; a CNN exit poll showed that 70 percent of voters opposed the driver's-license law, while only 24 percent supported it. Another poll found that 30 percent of voters said Davis's support for the driver's-license bill made them more likely to support his recall, while only 8 percent said the opposite. In fact, Arnold's opposition to illegal-alien driver's licenses may well have helped some conservatives overlook his liberal stands on social issues.

Heck, Arnold even won 30 percent of the Hispanic vote, and McClintock (who is much more hard-nosed on immigration) won another 9 percent, for a combined Republican total of 39 percent. That's more of the Hispanic vote than George W. Bush got when he ran for reelection as governor of Texas in 1998.

When the illegal-immigration issue was activated by the driver's-license law, blue-collar Democrats were given added reason to turn on Davis. A late September Los Angeles Times poll showed that illegal immigration in general or the driver's-license issue specifically were the top issue for only 6 percent of college-educated Democrats, but among those without a college degree they were the top issue for nearly four times as many. This was part of the reason union voters abandoned Davis; immigration is the ideal Reagan-Democrat issue, tapping as it does into class and social concerns. It's the Democrats who run the risk of irrelevancy if they don't respond to their constituents' concerns on immigration.

Now, Arnold doesn't really have a full-fledged stance on immigration. Repeal of the driver's-license bill is Step 9 in his 10-Step/100-Days agenda, but other than that it's wall-to-wall clichés: "Immigrants contribute to the richness of life in California"; "I will work with federal officials to address this problem"; "Human Traffickers and smugglers exploit and endanger immigrants, and I will crack down on this problem." And, in fact, on one salient immigration-related issue, Arnold is on the wrong side, supporting in-state tuition for illegal aliens going to state universities.

But the specifics are for later - what mattered on Tuesday was that Republican candidates addressed the immigration issue, however narrowly, and it helped propel the party to victory. Maybe the White House and the GOP leadership in Congress will take a lesson from this about the politics of immigration.

Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies and a Visiting Fellow at the Nixon Center.