According to the logic of politics, Leticia Perez should have handily won the heavily Democratic and Hispanic district in California's central valley, and her failure to do so has Republicans eager to develop a victory template for struggling GOP candidates elsewhere in the deep-blue state and across the country.
Fresno cherry farmer and cattle rancher Andy Vidak, who is fluent in Spanish, said he captured the state Senate seat in last week's closely watched runoff vote by connecting with Hispanic voters with a "common-sense" approach that focused on job creation, affordable energy and opposition to big government. He even cooked menudo, a cow-stomach soup and a Mexican favorite, at a Hispanic Chamber of Commerce event at the Bakersfield fairgrounds where 10,000 Hispanics turned out.
He got a big assist from other GOP officeholders and hundreds of Spanish-speaking Republican volunteers going door to door, making pitches in Spanish where necessary in the 60 percent Hispanic district. Mr. Vidak also managed to create a little political daylight from hard-liners in his party on the issue of eventually granting citizenship to illegal immigrants.
"We talked to them in their homes, where they are most comfortable on the issues that matter most to them: improving the economy, lower taxes, less government interference with small business," Republican Assemblyman Travis Allen said.
Fresno GOP Chairman Kurtis Wiley said he had never seen a party work harder and rally its resources any better.
While Democrats are in the governor's mansion and have legislative supermajorities in both houses of the legislature, a new kind of GOP leadership suddenly is thinking about making major inroads in California, and they are not embarrassed to say so aloud.
"California can be Republican again," said former state Senate leader Jim Brulte, the new state GOP chairman and the first one in recent memory who has real experience in party-building, winning elections and managing fellow GOP lawmakers.
Also embedded in the story is a lesson for Democrats: They took the district for granted. Republicans working on the Vidak campaign said they were hard-pressed to find a single Democratic officeholder on the streets pitching locals on behalf of Ms. Perez, a Kern County supervisor,
Kern County Democratic Party Chairwoman Candi Easter said her party wasn't prepared and simply got outhustled for the seat long held by successive Hispanic Democrats.
"If we lose this race, we lost it because of Democrats. We lost it because prominent Democrats didn't get engaged. We lost it because Democratic voters didn't vote," she told The Bakersfield Californian newspaper as votes were being counted but the ultimate outcome was clear.
The GOP victory suggested to some Californians that out-of-state Republicans such as Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a frequent visitor, may be right in saying that the most populous state in the nation may not be indelibly blue after all. However unimaginable it seems, a red California, with its jackpot of 55 Electoral College votes, likely would ensure a Republican White House and signal a GOP trend strong enough to sweep both houses of Congress.
But not since 1956 have Republicans been able to elect a majority in the state Senate in Sacramento, though they did claim a majority in the state Assembly as recently as 1996 — 17 years ago. George H.W. Bush in 1988 was the last Republican to carry the state in a presidential race, although moderate Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger served two terms as governor from 2003 to 2011.
"The party reached the bottom, and it's been real tough to rebound, but the part is revitalizing itself because we got the grass roots fired up," said California Young Republicans Chairman Joe Sanchis.
Mr. Vidak outpolled Ms. Perez in the May election to fill the seat of a retiring Democratic state senator, but a runoff was needed when he fell short of the simple majority needed to claim the seat. Mr. Vidak prevailed again in the runoff election last week with almost 54 percent of the vote.
Honing the message
Mr. Vidak said he got his message right and estimated that he had to win perhaps one of four Hispanic votes to carry the district. Previous GOP candidates for the seat took an estimated one of eight Hispanic votes — and routinely lost the four-county district.
"I ran on jobs, affordable energy and water, opposition to the $100 billion 'bullet train' federal boondoggle that Leticia supported for union jobs — and on common sense, which has no party lines," Mr. Vidak said.
Immigration was also a big deal in my campaign," Mr. Vidak said. "You can't live here without knowing many people who have some sort of documentation problem that the federal government has done nothing about for 25 years."
That is not quite the same message delivered on Mr. Vidak's behalf by Mr. Allen, the GOP assemblyman who worked the district for Mr. Vidak for three weekends in near 100-degree temperatures, bringing "tons of volunteers" with him from all over California.
"A path to citizenship [for illegal immigrants] was not part of the message," Mr. Allen said. "What mattered were the economic issues and that this was the first time these voters we visited talked to anyone from either party."
That "path to citizenship" disparity between the Vidak message and the one delivered by Mr. Allen and the army of volunteers does muddle the lesson the race holds for GOP candidates looking to break through elsewhere.
Although eventual citizenship for qualifying illegals is anathema to those in his party who put the rule of law above virtually all else, Mr. Vidak said his campaign embraced the importance of at least legalizing those already in the U.S. He said the issue of eventual citizenship aside, his opposition to breaking up families by sending some members back to their home countries is shared by voters of all stripes in the Central Valley, "which is very conservative — everybody loves guns and goes to church."
"They need to cross the border freely go to Grandma's funeral, but they can't get back," Mr. Vidak said. "We need to give these voters status that lets them cross the border freely, work here and pay taxes here."
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