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Saturday, Nov 10 2012 11:00 PM

Kern's GOP had better pay attention

By The Bakersfield Californian

Thanks to a number of one-sided victories on Election Day, the Kern County Republican Party no doubt seems as strong as ever. Three GOP candidates triumphed with more than two-thirds of the vote -- Rep. Kevin McCarthy (74 percent), Assemblywoman Shannon Grove (70 percent) and Assemblywoman Connie Conway (69 percent). Kern County voted overwhelmingly against propositions that would raise taxes, get rid of the death penalty and require new food labeling, and in favor of restrictions on unions' ability to raise funds for political activities. But it may be just a matter of time before the oversights that hurt Republicans at both the state and national levels on Nov. 6 -- failure to win adequate support among Hispanics, young voters and women -- have a local impact.

By all projections, the San Joaquin Valley is poised to experience a population boom in the coming decades -- one that will make the region younger and more ethnically diverse. And that pretty clearly defines the new Democratic coalition.

According to 2010 census data, Kern County is 49 percent Hispanic. From 2000 through 2010, the Hispanic population grew 63 percent. The percentage of young people in Kern County is higher than the state average and the number of older people is lower. Adding to this is a dip in Republican registration statewide and in Kern County. Between 2008 and 2012, Republican registration fell by about 2,500 voters. That's a mere 2 percent drop. But, meanwhile, Democratic registration increased by almost 7,000, or 6 percent, during the same period, and the number of voters registering with no party preference shot up by 13,568, or 28 percent.

Even if red Kern County maintains its demographic status quo for a while, the local GOP will face tough odds in the not-so-distant future. If it hopes to remain relevant in this changing community, the Republican Party must adapt. The first step is obvious: Rethink the framework of the immigration debate. In a way, the ball is already rolling on that one locally, thanks to Assembly candidate Pedro Rios, who came forward about his illegal entry into the U.S. late in the campaign and after earning the backing of nearly every local GOP politician. Republicans flocked to his defense. Their contradictory coddling of Rios flies in the face of their record and statements to date on immigration and undocumented immigrants, but it represents a perfect opening for party leaders to start softening their positions on this topic.

The dominoes are already falling nationwide. Fox News commentator Sean Hannity on Thursday announced he now supports a pathway to citizenship for those here illegally who have otherwise been law-abiding. Newt Gingrich took a similar position early on during the primaries. Grove recently said that, after hearing the stories of some constituents, she now supports some path to legal residency. Will McCarthy and Rep.-elect David Valadao move in the same direction? The time certainly seems right.

But even that may not be enough. In a recent column, conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks made an excellent point about a main tenet of Republican political ideology today: The demonizing of government. Brooks explains how this belief goes back to the early Protestant settlers who believed in the power of individuals and the importance of liberty and minimal government. But that idea doesn't resonate with today's diverse voters. Brooks points to research on Latinos and Asian-Americans which finds they value hard work and industriousness even in some cases more than whites. However, these groups also see a place for government in the economy and in creating opportunity for individuals. Asian-Americans, for example, who Brooks writes are "disproportionately entrepreneurial, industrious and family-oriented," voted against the GOP by a 3-to-1 margin last week.

Brooks suggested that Republican funders put less money into super PACs and more into research and development. Use those resources to find ways to replace the tired slogans that deride big government with messages that connect with today's voters and to recruit new leaders who reflect the wider community.

The Central Valley's red streak always existed in the shadows of the state's true GOP strongholds of Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. But now those stalwart Republican counties are showing signs of a shift. Obama has apparently won in San Bernardino County. In Riverside County, Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein is leading her Republican challenger -- and Democrats appear to have won two of four congressional seats there. If Kern County's Republican leaders don't feel the winds of change starting to hit them in the face, they're not paying attention.

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