SACRAMENTO -- Republicans could be on the verge of sinking into political oblivion in California, especially if they continue to take hard-line positions on illegal immigration, experts say.
Elections across the state this month left Republicans shut out of all statewide offices. Republicans also failed to gain any new congressional seats and lost one in the Assembly.
The failure was in stark contrast to gains made by Republicans across the country, sending the state GOP into a period of self-reflection over the future solvency of the party.
"We have a deep problem, not one solved easily," said Duf Sundheim, a former chairman of the state GOP. "We'll have to make significant changes if we're to be players in California again. We need to change the way we interact, have a little more humility in the way we present our positions. It requires us to make a fundamental change to our approach."
Latino backlash against Republicans drove the debacle, as illegal immigration occupied a central place in the gubernatorial campaign -- first in the GOP primary when Steve Poizner pushed Meg Whitman to the right by accusing her of being insufficiently hard line. Even Gov. Pete Wilson, the face of the unpopular 1994 ballot measure Prop. 187, made an appearance in a Whitman ad, saying she would be "tough as nails" on illegal immigrants.
But the backbreaker for Whitman, and, it turned out, the entire Republican ticket, came after her former housekeeper, Nicky Diaz Santillan, an illegal immigrant with roots in Union City, emerged with her story of being "treated like garbage" by Whitman.
"Because of Whitman's ridiculous carrying on with her housekeeper, Latinos were highly alienated," said Tony Quinn, co-editor of the California Target Book, which analyzes voting trends in the state. "They see Republicans as pandering to what they view as anti-Latino policies and attitudes that don't draw a distinction between illegal immigrants and ordinary Latinos."
Latinos ultimately flocked in droves to Gov.-elect Jerry Brown, a Democrat who captured 80 percent of the Latino vote compared with 15 percent for Whitman, according to a USC-Los Angeles Times postelection poll.
The trends for Republicans aren't forgiving, either. With California and the rest of the country amid the strongest immigrant wave in a century, voters are increasingly less white and more prone to support politicians who are sensitive to the needs of new populations, experts said.
Latinos, who made up 22 percent of the midterm turnout in California, increasingly see the Republican brand as toxic. More than one-third of Latinos said they would never consider voting Republican, while another 31 percent said Republicans should move closer to the center and nominate less conservative candidates.
At the same time, 50 percent of registered Republicans said candidates should stick to core Republican principles and nominate "true" conservatives, while 36 percent of Republicans prefer less conservative nominees.
A wide gap exists between Latinos and Republicans on immigration issues. Asked whether illegal immigrants should be granted the chance to become citizens if they fulfill certain obligations such as paying a fine, 41 percent of Republicans responded yes, compared with 77 percent of Latinos and 69 percent Democrats.
And while 57 percent of Latinos say government should protect the rights of racial and ethnic minorities, only 40 percent of Republicans agreed.
Still, Republican Party leaders say the GOP's main objective should be to improve its message rather than abandon its core position on illegal immigration -- which is opposing a pathway to citizenship for those who have entered the country illegally.
"No doubt illegal immigration is a major roadblock for us," said Tom Del Beccaro, the vice chairman of the state GOP who is expected to take over the party chairmanship in elections next year. "But we need to work with Latinos on issues like education and jobs. Do we need to deal with immigration head-on? Yes. We still believe it's an issue of national security, economics and government reform.
"But as long as we stay focused on the most difficult aspect of it, we can't make progress," he added. "We can't make this so it's targeted at one particular group. We have to explain the broader context."
Republicans will have to stop mirroring their more conservative brethren around the country, said Kevin Spillane, a Republican consultant who helped run GOP attorney general candidate Steve Cooley's campaign. Cooley conceded the race Wednesday to San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris; the long-undecided race was the sole holdout from the Nov. 2 election, and the announcement officially gave Democrats a sweep of all statewide offices.
"One of the challenges facing Republicans is that California is more moderate than the rest of the country," Spillane said. "We need to establish an identity that's different than the national identity."
It will take more than image makeovers to be taken seriously in a state that may be becoming intractably Democratic, said Manuel Pastor, an American Studies professor at the University of Southern California.
"Republicans think they have an image problem with the Latino community," he said, "but it looks like they have a policy problem."
Contact Steven Harmon at 916-441-2101.