For decades, it has been one of the biggest nightmares of the California Republican Party: What happens when the sleeping giant of California politics finally wakes up?
That feared sleeping giant was the great mass of legal Latino residents in the state, who didn’t bother to vote in telling numbers through most of the years it was growing into the largest ethnic group in this state.
The latest numbers show the sleeping giant in fact did waken in a big way last fall, one of the main reasons why Democrats took over seven seats in Congress that had long been held by Republicans. Yes, Latinos voted Democratic in only slightly higher proportions than they usually have. But the raw numbers told a different story.
The awakening was actually a gradual thing and it is far from complete. While Latinos surpassed whites five years ago as the state’s largest population bloc by a margin of 39 percent to 38.8 percent, even now, they account for less than 24 percent of all California voters.
That means Hispanics can wield even more political clout than they have over the last few years, when they at times simultaneously held both the Assembly speaker’s chair and the presidency of the state Senate.
What they did last year was already enough to shake things up considerably here and in Washington, D.C. Without its new California members, Congress would look quite different today.
Here’s what actually happened: Where just 16 percent of the total votes in the seven districts that switched parties last year were cast by Latinos in 2014, the last previous non-presidential general election year, in 2018 Latinos accounted for 22 percent.
This was the single biggest reason why turnout in the districts targeted by Democrats equaled what is usually seen only in presidential elections.
That flipped those seats.
The best example may have been the 21st District south of Fresno where current Democratic Rep. T.J. Cox ousted longtime Republican Rep. David Valadao by a slim margin of 50.4 percent to 49.6 percent. In 2014, when Valadao won the district handily, Latinos accounted for 44 percent of votes there. Last year, that number was up to 52 percent. This amounted to an increase of almost 8,000 Hispanic votes in a district Cox carried by only about 1,000 votes.
Increased Latino turnout plainly did Valadao in. Another way to see it was that President Trump’s regular insults of Latinos and other ethnics aroused them sufficiently to cost his party that seat.
At the same time, turnout was 58 percent among eligible Latino voters in the Modesto-centered 10thDistrict, compared with just 29 percent during the last previous non-presidential year.
Latinos in that district, long represented by Republican Jeff Denham, produced 26 percent of the 221,000 votes cast, up from 18 percent four years earlier. The increase did Denham in.
In other districts, the Latino difference was also pronounced: The Orange County district that went to Democrat Gilbert Cisneros by a slim 51.6 percent to 48.4 percent margin over Republican Young Kim saw a 7 percent increase in Latino votes over 2014. Differences weren’t quite so great in other districts the Democrats flipped, but each of them saw increases of 3 percent to 4 percent in the Latino share of the vote.
There’s a lesson here for every politician in California and nationally: When the interests of a large demographic group are denigrated by the leading figure of a major political party, consequences will follow.
The backlash Trump created this time proved there’s a major price to pay for insulting behavior and rhetoric.
Some Latinos thought their group’s turnout should have been even larger. “You’re definitely going to see higher numbers in 2020,” Virginia Maduena, a former mayor of the small city of Riverbank in Stanislaus County, within the 10th district, told a reporter. “As long as Republicans continue to support Trump’s rhetoric, I just don’t see how a Republican can succeed here.”
She’s convinced the once-slumbering giant will stay awake and perhaps become even more alert and influential.
If she’s right, Democrats stand a good chance of hanging onto many of the seats they took from the GOP last year.
Email Thomas Elias at firstname.lastname@example.org. His book, “The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It” is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net