“They keep coming,” began a 1994 television commercial promoting California Gov. Pete Wilson’s re-election.
Wilson was trailing California Treasurer Kathleen Brown by 20 percentage points when he decided that attacking immigrants was his ticket to re-election. He tied himself to the anti-immigrant Proposition 187, a ballot measure that sought to block illegal aliens from using state public services and education.
Republicans had been doing well at luring Latino votes. Ronald Reagan, at one point, attracted about half the Latino vote. It was a demographic that seemed very much up for grabs, unlike the African-American vote, which is usually very loyal to Democrats.
Then Pete Wilson and Proposition 187 came along. Wilson managed to get re-elected by bashing immigrants, and 187 was approved by voters. The GOP won one house of the legislature and half the state’s U.S. House seats.
And few Latinos, in California or elsewhere, trusted the GOP thereafter. The only successful Republican candidate for governor, U.S. senator, or president in California since 187 was an immigrant — Arnold Schwarzenegger. But it went far beyond California. The impact of Wilson and 187 was a temblor that reverberated in politics across the United States.
In Nevada, Brian Sandoval — himself a Latino — attracted only 15 percent of their votes in 2010 and even in 2014, when he was running as an incumbent against an unknown and unfunded Democrat, Latinos still voted against him.
“Could Greg Abbott be Texas’ version of Pete Wilson?” asked a headline in that state earlier this year, a demonstration of how Wilson still frames immigration politics.
Here are others: “Mitt Romney attended high-dollar fundraiser for Pete Wilson’s 1994 anti-immigrant campaign.” “Could Scott Brown be a Pete Wilson-style RINO immigration patriot presidential candidate?”
Ever since, Republicans have dealt with choosing between the immediate gains to be made from beating the anti-immigrant drum and the long-term loss of a major demographic.
Republican pollsters such as Whit Ayres have warned GOP candidates that the party is getting a growing share of a shrinking demographic — white men — and are doing everything they can to alienate women, gays and minorities. Mitt Romney got 17 percent of the nonwhite vote, so he needed a landslide among white men, and he didn’t get it.
Some GOP candidates, such as George W. Bush, have resisted the lure of anti-immigration politics, preferring a Reaganesque effort to appeal to Latinos. Bush got 44 percent of their vote, just a percentage point below Reagan.
But among Latinos, the default position is to vote Democratic, and the last thing the party needs is another Pete Wilson to deliver another 20 years of Latino alienation from the party. Enter Donald Trump.
Trump’s denunciation of immigrants does not even have the linkage to public service expenses that Wilson provided. Instead, Trump discussed immigrants in crude and bigoted fashion. “Somebody’s doing the raping, Don,” he told an interviewer. “I mean, somebody’s doing it. Women are being raped. Who’s doing the raping? Who’s doing the raping?”
This is beyond the pale. Who, anymore, denounces entire groups in this fashion? Latinos are not all anything, any more than Irish or dry cleaners or men are all anything.
Moreover, there is a history here — for much of the nation’s post-Civil War history, racists alleged rape by blacks and several studies found that rape formed a major percentage of the rationalizations for the lynching of blacks. How can Trump traffic in such tawdry material? Granted, he is a birther, so perhaps he is not good at screening out bad information. That’s certainly a quality that is desirable in a president.
Trump has, however, given the Republican Party an opportunity to change its Pete Wilson history. If the other GOP presidential candidates along with party officials denounce Trump with something approaching unanimity, it would speak powerfully not just to Trump but to the Latino community.
Dennis Myers is a veteran Nevada journalist.