That ballot measure would have denied people suspected of being undocumented access to public services, such as nonemergency health care and public education. Painting immigrants and their families as invaders who “keep coming,” California conservatives rallied around the slogan of “Save Our State.” In response, a generation of Latinos, most of whom were Mexican American, protested, registered to vote, and acquired citizenship. The great majority gravitated toward the Democratic Party, elevating a roster of figures who would soon dominate California politics, including former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, state Senate President Pro Tempore (and now Los Angeles City Councilmember) Kevin de León, Senator Alex Padilla, and Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra. Although a federal judge eventually ruled that Proposition 187 was unconstitutional, the damage had been done: California, once a purple state, had become overwhelmingly blue.
It’s taken many years, but many Republican strategists now recognize that the party cannot be competitive in California, where a plurality of the population is Latino, unless it attracts a much larger portion of the Latino electorate. “If you’re going to grow under California demographics, and you’re going to grow your share of the vote, the Latino vote is exactly where you find the growth potential,” Rob Stutzman, a former top adviser to Schwarzenegger, told me.
This is precisely what the 2020 election results revealed. Most notable were shifts away from Democrats in Latino communities, especially in Mexican American precincts in Los Angeles and Orange Counties. Congressional candidates Mike Garcia in Los Angeles County, Michelle Steel and Young Kim in Orange County, and David Valadao in the Central Valley played up traditional Republican messaging on economic opportunity, taxes, and jobs while deftly mediating their relationship to the Trump brand according to how partisan their voters were. Garcia and Steel embraced a brash pro-Trump message; Kim and Valadao veered toward the center. They all pushed hard to reopen businesses and lift pandemic restrictions; made appeals to social conservatives, including Catholic and evangelical Latinos; and toed a careful line on immigration, relying on their own immigrant heritage to appear more inclusive than the national party.