- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 30, 2010

LOS ANGELES | Republicans are relishing the dawning of a new day on Capitol Hill. But across the country in California, the party of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan is slowing sinking in the west.

The latest sign of the gathering gloom: In a year in which the GOP notched big victories in Congress, governors’ offices and statehouses around the nation, California Democrats made a clean sweep of eight statewide contests on Nov. 2. Democrats padded their majority in the legislature, where the party controls both chambers.

And in a midterm battle in which the Republicans added a net 63 new House seats, not one captured seat will be held by a California Republican.

California counted more registered Republicans in 1988 than it does today, even though the state population has since grown by about 10 million. Setting aside the politically ambidextrous Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose celebrity eclipsed his Republican registration, the California GOP counts only a single victory in 21 statewide contests since 2002 - that of insurance commissioner in 2006.

You’d have to go back more than two decades to find a Republican, George H.W. Bush, who carried the state in a presidential election.

“They know who we are and they don’t like us,” former state Republican Party Chairman Duf Sundheim said bluntly of the state electorate.

Riding high in Washington, Republican influence has been marginalized here. Voters this month cleared the legislature to pass budgets with a majority vote - down from a two-thirds threshold - that will allow Sacramento Democrats to pass a spending plan without Republican support.

The GOP losses this month left party leaders stunned. Recession-weary voters seemingly wanted new faces and ideas. The Democratic political careerists, Sen. Barbara Boxer and state Attorney General Jerry Brown, a former two-term governor, both were considered vulnerable, facing well-funded candidates.

In the end, Mr. Brown easily claimed the governorship from Republican billionaire Meg Whitman, a former eBay chief executive who spent more money - at least $174 million - than any candidate for a statewide office in U.S. history. All but roughly $30 million of that was from her personal fortune.

Mrs. Boxer beat another well-heeled Republican nominee from the corporate world, former Hewlett-Packard Co. chief executive Carly Fiorina, by nearly 10 percentage points. What was touted as a powerful GOP get-out-the-vote effort fizzled.

For now, the conservative tilt in Washington and “tea party” activism will do Republicans little good in statewide races in California, where voters show a preference for candidates who support abortion rights and embrace environmental regulation.

But the GOP’s biggest problem rests with the surging number of Latinos, who typically vote Democratic, a tendency hardened by the national debate over illegal immigration.

It has been said the future happens first in California, and the state passed a little-noticed milestone this month: For the first time, Hispanics account for more than half the students in the state’s public schools. They will be tomorrow’s voters.

“I’m not sure Republicans have hit bottom yet in California,” said former state lawmaker Jim Brulte, an influential GOP party fixture.

Part of the problem is simple math. Both major parties have been losing registration as more voters choose to align with no party at all, but Republican registration has withered to about 31 percent, giving Democrats, at 44 percent, a 2.2-million-voter advantage. Independents - about one in five voters - also lean Democratic.

For a Republican, “the crossover vote that you need is almost unreachable,” said Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book, an analysis of legislative and congressional races. Mr. Hoffenblum said the GOP maintains strongholds in inland regions, but Democrats dominate the populous coast.

It leaves candidates such as Ms. Whitman with little, if any, room for error. The disclosure in the run-up to Election Day that she employed an illegal immigrant for years as a housekeeper, then fired her after learning of her citizenship status, made her a target of ridicule in Spanish-language media. Mr. Brown carried the Hispanic vote by a 2-to-1 margin, according to an AP exit poll.

Former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson said the clout of Sacramento unions has helped to alter the political calculus. Unions spent roughly $30 million supporting Mr. Brown’s candidacy, helping him survive Ms. Whitman’s record spending. After this year’s losses, Mr. Wilson said, Republicans must develop a clear message and deliver it persuasively.

Some analysts say state Republicans have been scalded by focusing too much on social issues, including abortion and gay rights, driving away swing voters.

Mr. Schwarzenegger told California Republicans two years ago that his party is in for a future of disappointment unless Republicans shifted to the political center, seizing issues usually associated with the Democrats, including climate change and health care reform.

“We are dying at the box office,” he warned.

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