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Republicans' big hope for 2010

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
  • Republicans have a shot at winning major offices in California, David Frum says
  • Frum says after World War II, California Republicans were key to party's national success
  • California began electing more Democrats in the 1990s
  • Frum: New GOP leadership from California could revive Reagan's message of hope

Editor's note: David Frum writes a weekly column for A special assistant to President Bush in 2001-2, he is the author of six books, including "Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again" and the editor of FrumForum.

(CNN) -- California Republicans are feeling an emotion they have not felt for years: hope. Not only may Republicans elect a governor, but also they have a credible chance of defeating incumbent Barbara Boxer and electing a U.S. senator for the first time since 1988.

Might the state of Ronald Reagan be returning to its old party loyalty? Even a little? If so, that return will have powerful consequences not just for California, but the country.

From World War II through 1988, Republicans won the presidency seven times. Six of those seven times, they had a Californian on the ticket in either the first or second spot.

But in the recession of 1990, California dropped out of the Republican coalition. California was hit hard by the drop in defense spending after the end of the Cold War, especially the drop in aerospace spending. Engineers who designed the warplanes -- and the men on the line who built them -- abruptly suffered sharp drops in incomes, security and status. As their fortunes declined, their voting changed.

The tech boom of the 1990s rescued the California economy. But the California symbolized by Silicon Valley was a different place from the California symbolized by Lockheed's Burbank Skunk Works. The new computer engineers were as Democratic as their crew-cut predecessors had been Republican -- and the shift was especially dramatic among the state's women.

Reagan had won Asian-Americans when he ran for governor in the 1960s. But the post-1970 surge of nonwhite immigrants mostly flowed into the Democratic Party.

These upheavals transformed California. And the transformation of California transformed the national Republican Party.

As California dropped out of the GOP coalition, it was replaced by Texas as the party's anchor. Since 1988, Republicans have won the presidency three times, and every one of those times, the ticket was headed by a Texan. After Republicans gained control of Congress in 1994, Texans held two of the top three leadership positions in the House of Representatives.

The GOP was following the political equivalent of the old saying, "He who has the gold, rules." Texas brought more money and more votes to the party than any other state, so of course it claimed leadership.

But unfortunately, this new Texas-led Republican Party found it much more difficult to carry the rest of the country than the old California-led party. In the three presidential elections won with a Texan atop the ticket, the GOP averaged 328 electoral votes. In the four elections won with a Californian atop the ticket, the GOP averaged 459 electoral votes.

You could write a book about the reasons that California Republicanism exerted stronger national appeal than Texas Republicanism. (And in fact, I'm doing so.) But the fact that it did -- that's just in the numbers.

But what if California returned to its former loyalties? California's most recent Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was foreign-born and constitutionally ineligible to run for president. But if Meg Whitman wins the GOP nomination (as seems likely) and then the governorship, she'll instantly become a leading candidate for vice president in 2012 and a likely presidential candidate for 2016.

If Tom Campbell or Carly Fiorina wins Boxer's Senate seat, suddenly the Republican senatorial caucus will gain an articulate voice for California's distinctive politics of middle-class opportunity and social modernism.

Out of this season of extremist talk and angry rhetoric could come new Republican leadership formed by the state that formed Reagan -- and ready to impart to Reagan's former party his message of hope, optimism and conservative reform.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.