Commentary: Welcome to the Republic of California

Like baseball fanatics in July, Californians never tire of reciting statistics. Their sprawling state, with its mega size and macro importance, is home to one in eight Americans. California commands 54 electoral votes, or 20% of what an aspiring pol needs to be elected President. And if the Golden State were an independent country, it would be the world's fifth-largest economy.

But let's just inhale some freeway fumes and giddily speculate about what kind of country California might be if it were to strike out on its own. Its policies would certainly differ from the motherland's. That's partly due to the state's tradition of social tolerance and partly due to the continental drift that is pushing a Republican-controlled Washington in an ever-more-conservative direction. While the GOP swept control of Congress in November, allowing President George W. Bush to hold sway at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, California's statewide races offered a mirror image: Every state office is now in Democratic hands for the first time since 1882, an outgrowth of largely minority-driven gains in Democratic registration.

California keeps enacting laws that make it a progressive paradise. On issues ranging from corporate governance to global warming, the state regularly sends business lobbyists scurrying for cover and winds up with pro-consumer and pro-worker statutes that are among the strongest in the nation.

The contrast between conservatives and California mandarins is never starker than on the environment. Last year, the Bush Administration walked away from the Kyoto Treaty on global warming, citing worries about the burden on industrialized nations' economies. That didn't go down well in enviro-conscious California. In July, the state legislature imposed its own limits on greenhouse-gas emissions from autos, beginning with 2009 models. Because Californians account for 10% of the U.S. car market and other states are making noises about adopting similar standards, that initiative could have national implications. In an effort to curb the rush to more stringent state regs, the Bush Administration is backing the auto makers' legal challenge of the new rules.

The powerful gun lobby, triumphant in the nation's capital and many state legislatures, mostly fires blanks in the Republic of California. Gun-control advocates were delighted in August when the state opted to strip gun manufacturers of their immunity from product-liability lawsuits. The Republican congressional leadership, meanwhile, sought to preempt the state law with a federal statute. "While we're playing defense with the federal government, California gives us hope," says Matt Nosanchuk, litigation director of the Violence Policy Center, a gun-control group.

While California and Washington obviously do not see eye-to-eye too often, government officials on both coasts collided outright over energy policy in 2001. As the state's electricity prices went through the roof, Democratic politicians, led by California Governor Gray Davis, pressured a reluctant Administration to impose federal price caps. Washington ultimately relented, but California is still taking a more aggressive stance than the feds in seeking restitution for alleged price-gouging by energy companies.

The state isn't just taking on energy producers. Earlier this year, California Treasurer Phil Angelides announced that his office would cease investing in companies that incorporate offshore to skirt paying U.S. taxes. "California has no reason to trust that Trent Lott, Dennis Hastert, or George Bush will protect shareholder interests," says Angelides. "It is our duty to take the lead." The GOP House, meanwhile, tucked a provision in the Homeland Security Act that allowed offshore corporations to bid on contracts with the new agency.

California wasn't always a liberal hotbed. This is the state that spawned the Proposition 13 tax revolt and became the breeding ground for the Reagan Revolution. But unfortunately for the dwindling cadre of Reaganites, a demographic tide that has flooded the state with Hispanic and Asian immigrants has transformed it into one of the country's Democratic bastions. The trend, some political observers say, could soon alter the electoral map in other states, from Illinois to New Jersey. "California has always been a bellwether in national politics," says John Judis, co-author of The Emerging Democratic Majority.

Latinos now make up 17% of registered voters in California, up from 5% a decade ago. The fact that many new citizens are struggling financially and are dependent on safety-net programs also builds support for liberal pols. "They want a larger role for government," says Mark Baldassare, senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California. Indeed, in November, Davis lost the white vote to his Republican challenger, hard-right millionaire businessman Bill Simon. It was the support of minorities that gave Davis his five-point margin of victory.

And there are the missteps of the California GOP. The party machinery is controlled by a strident minority of hardcore right-wingers, but the practical effect of that iron grip has been to nominate archconservatives who cannot carry swing voters statewide. For example, despite White House pressure, Republicans selected Simon over Richard Riordan, the moderate former mayor of Los Angeles, to challenge Davis. "The underlying demographics have changed," says Bruce E. Cain, director of government studies at the University of California at Berkeley, "but the GOP candidates haven't."

The fact that Davis won the race by a relatively small margin, however, has given some Republicans a glimmer of hope. They point out that states such as Texas and Florida are experiencing demographic trends similar to California's yet have remained in Republican hands. "There's no reason we can't do the same thing in California," says GOP political consultant Dan Schnur.

But for the next four years, at least, expect the Golden State to zig where the Bush Administration zags on issues ranging from health care to product-liability reform. And the state's size and track record for sparking trends means it will be a force to be reckoned with. "Republicans are going to have to tolerate California," says Fernando J. Guerra, a professor of political science at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. "You can't ignore the fifth-largest economy in the world."

By Alexandra Starr

With Ronald Grover in Los Angeles

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