November inflicted more dismay on Republicans. Twelve months out from the presidential election, state and local races this year subjected the GOP to another bloodbath. The party lost both chambers of the Virginia legislature and gave up the governor’s mansion in deep-red Kentucky, despite a campaign intervention by the President. The drubbing Republicans received in city and county contests near Philadelphia was the most frightening of all, presaging difficulty ahead for Trump’s reelection efforts in Pennsylvania.
Democrats could relax: 2018 was not a fluke after all. Surely these results meant that even a doddering Joe Biden or a democratic socialist like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren could beat Trump next November. There was just one problem with this cocky conclusion: Tucson.
Tucson is a bluish city in a light-red state — Trump won Arizona in 2016, but Democrats last year picked up the Senate seat held by the retiring Republican Jeff Flake.
Arizona is a Democratic target in 2020, not only in the presidential race but also in the struggle for the Senate. Martha McSally — the nominee who lost Flake’s seat, only to be appointed to fill the one left vacant by John McCain’s death — is up for re-election and one of the GOP’s most vulnerable incumbents. Yet what happened in Tucson suggests that the Republicans still have an advantage in the state, if they only know what to do with it.
What happened is that Tucson, with a population 47.2 percent non-Hispanic white and 41.6 percent Hispanic, defeated a proposition to become a ‘sanctuary city’ for illegal immigrants with a landslide 71 percent of the vote. The Democrats’ key message — Trump put our immigrant ‘kids in cages’ — failed to resonate in a city with almost as many Hispanics as whites. (Those figures are from the 2010 census, and the city has probably become more Hispanic since then.) Tolerating illegal immigration might not be the winning issue Democrats have long assumed it to be.
If Democrats at the national level were paying more attention to their party’s recently elected senator from Arizona, they would have realized this point. Kyrsten Sinema, the Democrat who defeated McSally for Flake’s seat, is more of a maverick than John McCain ever was when it comes to defying the elite consensus. She has flouted partisan demands and supported immigration enforcement, even at the risk of courting official censure from the Arizona Democratic party. She knows her state and its voters.
For 25 years Democrats have believed a myth of their own making — one that Republicans have bought into as well, out of an eagerness to please the business world and polite suburban opinion. This is the myth of Pete Wilson, the Republican governor of California who supposedly destroyed his party in the Golden State by taking a tough line on immigration. He tied his re-election campaign in 1994 to the fortunes of Proposition 187, which would prohibit undocumented aliens from taking advantage of most state services. The initiative passed with just under 59 percent of the vote, and Wilson was re-elected with 55 percent — including nearly a fourth of the Hispanic vote and just over a fifth of the black vote. These are numbers a Republican would kill for today.
But that’s the point, or so Democrats and immigration enthusiasts argue. Wilson’s share of the Hispanic vote was down from that of previous Republicans. And the party’s fortunes in California went into steep decline after his triumph and have never recovered, though even the bad odor of the party label could not stop Arnold Schwarzenegger from winning the 2003 gubernatorial recall election — which threw out Wilson’s Democratic successor — and getting re-elected in 2008.
Schwarzenegger doesn’t count, you might say. He wasn’t a real Republican. He wasn’t: but then again, neither was Pete Wilson, not by the standards of what the GOP had become at the national level by the late 1990s. The party by then was culturally Southern and evangelical, strongly prolife, while Wilson and Schwarzenegger were abortion-rights supporters.
As Christian cultural conservatism became the GOP’s national brand, the culturally liberal Republicanism that long defined the party’s identity in the West died out. Ronald Reagan himself, as governor of California in the 1960s, had liberalized the state’s abortion laws, which he later regretted. Arizona Republicans Barry Goldwater and Sandra Day O’Connor also exhibited the Western Republican penchant for social liberalism. Kyrsten Sinema, the first openly bisexual senator, might have been at home in such a party
Take the social conservatism out of the Republican brand as it stood in the 1990s and 2000s, however, and nothing is left: you could be pro-business and be a Democrat, especially since the Democratic party was most favorable to importing cheap immigrant labor. California had, and still has, many pro-life and socially conservative voters — the state did ban same-sex marriage in a referendum before Obergefell, after all — but they were not enough to win statewide offices without the socially liberal Republicans. And both in California and nationally, the GOP of the late 1990s and 2000s ran away from the unifying issues of immigration restriction and crime control. Until, that is, Donald Trump came along.
Trump is too much the quintessential New Yorker (and Florida transplant) to win California. And the Republican party there really might be doomed, given not just continuing immigration but also massive middle-class emigration. But Arizona is a different matter. And it’s not the only place the immigration message can win, as Trump proved the last time. Republicans should heed the lesson of Tucson and forget the myth of Pete Wilson.
This article is in The Spectator’s December 2019 US edition.