LOS ANGELES – Republicans had pinned their hopes on George W. Bush to reinvigorate the sagging California GOP, but the strategy flopped as a powerful Democratic tide again swept the nation’s biggest state.
It carried Al Gore and Sen. Dianne Feinstein to easy victories Tuesday, sent five additional California Democrats to the House and crushed a school voucher initiative — strengthening the party under the centrist hand of Gov. Gray Davis.
Democrats also maintained their majorities in the state Assembly and Senate, a result that is likely to solidify their grip on the state in redistricting next year.
“There is a clear signal that we’ve got to rebuild our party from A to Z, in every sense, from improving our message to our grassroots campaign,” said California Republican Party spokesman Stuart DeVeaux. He said the GOP was taking stock of its losses, which he called “maddening” and “very upsetting.”
The Democrats’ dominance in California offset strong Republican showings elsewhere in the nation.
The state’s 54 electoral votes are one-fifth the total needed to capture the presidency, and kept Gore competitive as Bush swept Southern and Rocky Mountain states.
Gore beat Bush in California by 1.2 million votes, 54 percent to 41 percent. Green Party contender Ralph Nader, once viewed as a threat to Gore in California, was a virtual non-factor, drawing 4 percent.
And by sending five new Democrats to the House, California helped the party gain two seats, narrowing GOP control to the slimmest of margins.
In 1998, voters defeated all but two statewide Republican officers, with Dan Lungren losing in a landslide to Davis in the governor’s race.
One of the successful Republicans that year, Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush, resigned in an influence-peddling scandal last June.
That leaves one Republican in high office: Secretary of State Bill Jones.
Bush’s solid defeat — despite spending $1.5 million a week on ads in California and repeatedly campaigning here — renewed questions about how a top-of-the-ticket Republican can compete in California.
Bush’s California campaign chairman, Gerry Parsky, said Bush faced insurmountable obstacles following the GOP debacle of 1998.
In addition, Democrats outnumber Republicans by 1.6 million in California.
Even so, Parsky said Bush had helped rebuild the GOP in California. Lungren lost by 19 points; Bush by 13.
“He has begun the process of transforming the face of the Republican Party, both nationwide and in California,” Parsky said. “Historically, we will see this as a turning point.”
Demographic forces are also at work. Hispanics are the fastest-growing segment of the electorate, and constituted 14 percent of voters Tuesday. They favored Gore more than 2-1.
Virtually the only subgroups that went for Bush were white men, voters earning more than $100,000 annually, Protestants and married parents.
And Californians reaffirmed their preference for centrist representation.
Fifty-eight percent of self-described moderates voted for Gore, 36 percent for Bush, according to an exit poll.
“This was about the moderates,” Davis said. “This state will respond to good, fiscally responsible, pro-choice, pro-sensible gun control, anti-tobacco candidates,” he said. “This state’s not about anyone way off on the left or way off on the right.”
Davis picked his battles carefully in this election, focusing almost exclusively on helping Gore carry the state; defeating the voucher initiative; and promoting another measure to make it easier to win local school bonds.
He won on all three counts, illustrating his political clout.
At a Wednesday news conference, Davis took credit for “the way Californians responded to my call to improve and reform public education.”
Of course, Davis could prove the biggest winner should Gore lose the presidential election. As governor of the largest state, the Democratic governor automatically would be considered a leading White House contender in 2004.
Davis twice sidestepped questions on the subject Wednesday.
“I expect Al Gore to win,” Davis said, “and I expect to head up his re-election campaign in 19 — 2000 and whatever it is. Four.”