California featured Republican heavy hitters for decades. So why did it turn blue?

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California is a bright blue state, but it wasn’t always this way. The Golden State gave the country Earl Warren, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Over the last 100 years, most of the governors here, like Warren and Reagan, have been Republicans. 

These days though, nearly as many Californians are registered “decline to state” as are registered Republican. And the Grand Old Party has failed to get even one of its members elected to statewide office in more than a decade. 

California has 53 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, and among those, only seven belong to Republicans. Both U.S. Senators from California are Democrats. 

Jack Pitney, a professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College, says much of the shift can be boiled down to two points in California history: the 1994 election and Proposition 187. The proposition helped mobilize the Democrat-leaning Latino voter bloc in the state. 

USC journalism and public policy professor Roberto Suro says, “The backlash among Latino voters was certainly significant. It's been documented, it's been written about. A lot of people came into politics. There was a lot of energy.”

Suro says that energy is due in part to the 1986 Immigration and Control Act, which helped pave a way to citizenship for many immigrants in the U.S., including Latinos. 

Democrats were also already gaining ground in California in the years leading up to 1994, with the election of Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein. 

Pitney points out that the manufacturing industry, which was an economic and political base for the Californian Republican Party during the Cold War, lost its grip in the state. The state then shifted to a more service worker-based economy, which often attracts more Democratic-leaning employees. 

Looking back, Pitney notes that California was never a solidly Republican state. 

“California has been changing,” Pitney says. “Democrats controlled the state legislature between the late 1960s, and except for a very, very narrow period during the 1990s, ever since then.”

But despite changing demographics, there is still a solid Republican base in California, Suro says. 

“Mexican Americans are significantly more conservative on social issues, on law and order, [and] support for the military,” Suro says. “There is still a quarter of the electorate, at least maybe 30% that is reliably Republican. Evangelicals are certainly an important part of that sector of the Latino electorate, both in California and across the country.”

Moving forward, Pitney says leading Republicans don’t have candidates that are popular enough to win statewide.

“If you speak privately to a lot of leading Republicans in California, they know what they need to do. The problem is that they don’t pick the candidates. The voters pick the candidates,” Pitney says. 

That’s partly due to the top-two primary system, which doesn’t leave room for less popular candidates to win nominations. 

Pitney expects it’ll be difficult for another Republican candidate to win a primary, due to Democrats’ and Republicans’ tendencies to vote for members of their own party. A historical exception might be former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who Pitney says had a broad appeal to California voters.  

“That's not the kind of [candidate] who will often win a nomination in the state. And that's a very, very difficult problem for the Republicans to solve,” Pitney says.