- The Washington Times - Monday, October 13, 2003

The deeper significance of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s victory in California is just now beginning to dawn on the political establishment here.

While Democratic officials were in full denial last week — insisting the Republican takeover of the biggest gubernatorial prize in the country was only about Gray Davis’ unpopularity — broader trends were at work that may signal serious defections for Democrats in next year’s elections.

One of them is the continuing erosion of the Democrats’ political base, especially among minorities and labor union members who voted in large numbers to oust Mr. Davis and replace him with a conservative political outsider who wants to cut taxes and slow down spending.

About 17 percent of black voters supported Mr. Schwarzenegger, and another 6 percent voted for Republican Sen. Tom McClintock. Even more amazing, a stunning 39 percent of Hispanics also voted Republican (30 percent for Mr. Schwarzenegger, 9 percent for Mr. McClintock), despite Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante’s candidacy and Mr. Schwarzenegger’s vow to deny drivers licenses for illegal immigrants.

Top this off with news that spread a pall of gloom over AFL-CIO headquarters here, not to mention the Democratic National Committee: Half of all union voters voted Republican, too, most of them for Mr. Schwarzenegger.

Democratic officials were downplaying the results, arguing that the Republican coup in no way threatened their hold on the heavily Democratic state in next year’s presidential elections.

But rank-and-file Democratic strategists and independent pollsters have begun to warn party leaders that something much more troubling is going on in California. The Republican message of lower taxes and spurring economic growth to create jobs is sinking deeper into the Democrats’ core political base.

“This is another wake-up call for Democrats not to take their voting blocs, their traditionally Democratic constituencies, for granted,” said Maria Cardona, a top strategist at the New Democrat Network who is working to rebuild party support among Hispanics, “because if you don’t connect with these groups early on, the issues they care about — jobs and the economy — they are not going to vote for you.”

When pollster John Zogby looked at the exit-poll numbers, he was shocked. “Democrats ought to pay attention to these numbers because the unthinkable has happened,” he told me.

“Hispanics have crossed over to the GOP in large numbers, 25 percent of Democrats voted against Mr. Davis, and 19 percent of African-Americans,” Mr. Zogby said. “Those are terrible numbers [for Democrats] in a 50-50 nation.”

Is this just an isolated case? Were the Democrats’ key constituencies just reacting angrily to the mess Mr. Davis had made of the California economy and infrastructure?

White House and Republican Party strategists here do not think so. They see last week’s victory as a successful test-run of the 2004 election cycle in which Mr. Schwarzenegger ran on an economic growth agenda right out of President Bush’s playbook.

They see Mr. Schwarzenegger as more than just a charismatic movie star, but as an articulate, fast-learning political star who has the street smarts to fix California’s problems and help Mr. Bush put the state in play next fall.

Mr. Bush’s lieutenants are already planning trips to the West Coast and, in a telephone interview last week, the president promised the governor-elect “whatever help he needed,” according to a key White House adviser.

Only, in this case, Mr. Schwarzenegger will most likely be the one helping Mr. Bush to reach out to the swing Democrats who fled their own party, especially among the large Hispanic communities that can no longer be safely counted as part of the Democrats’ base.

Mr. Bush clearly has his work cut out for him in a state he lost to Al Gore in 2000, and where Democrats still control the state legislature.

But timing in politics is everything, and, three months before the election year begins, the GOP has something very big going for it: a recovering economy. This is going to help Mr. Schwarzenegger big time in the months to come, easing unemployment somewhat and boosting state tax revenues that will help offset the spending curbs and tax cuts he intends to make.

Business leaders already believe Mr. Schwarzenegger will stem the tide of what they consider anti-business legislation — including mandatory health care coverage for employees.

There is another political dividend Mr. Schwarzenegger will bring to the GOP if he is successful — disenchanted Democratic voters who, after Gray Davis’ debacle, no longer have faith in the Democrats to govern.

The GOP’s biggest new voter target will clearly be Hispanic immigrants, whom Mr. Schwarzenegger wisely began to reach out to at his first news conference the day after his election.

In a statement that was the opening bell for this outreach effort, he said, “I want to make all undocumented immigrants documented and legal in this country.” One approach, championed by Mr. Bush in his 2000 campaign, will grant temporary work permits to allow immigrants to travel to and from the United States.

And this is just week one of Mr. Schwarzenegger’s intentions to reinvent Republican politics in California, thereby helping Mr. Bush put it back in the GOP’s column in 2004.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent for The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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