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California Sends Message of Change - and Power of Latino Vote

Count on California to be different. Amid national election returns this week that left the partisan balance sheet largely unaltered, the behemoth of the West has delivered an unmistakable message of change.

Not only did the Democrats regain control of the governor's office after 16 years in the wilderness, but the massive ethnic transition of this state, the most pronounced and consequential in the nation, continued to tilt away from the Republican Party. Many were left wondering if the Republicans lost not only an election, but a generation of Latino voters.

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Sweetening the gubernatorial victory for Democrats was the reelection of incumbent Sen. Barbara Boxer, whose race against challenger Matt Fong was perceived early on as one of the premier tests of the impact of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. In the end, it turned almost entirely on local dynamics.

The consequences of a Democratic governor in California in near-term, national politics are enormous. Democratic Gov.-elect Gray Davis will be the gatekeeper for redrawing state and congressional district boundaries after the 2000 census. If history is any guide, the Democratic Party can count on Davis to deliver 10 or so more Democrats from California to the House of Representatives, a huge gain considering the Republicans' slim margin in the House.

In addition, having a friendly Democrat as governor of the state with the most electoral votes in the nation is a clear plus going into the 2000 presidential contest.

Yet there may be even greater significance in the inability of the Republicans to stop the Democratic bias of the state's Latino voters, the fastest growing part of the state electorate and population.

Some exit polls showed that Mr. Davis received 80 percent of the Latino vote, despite a concerted effort by his Republican opponent Dan Lungren to broaden his party's ethnic appeal. For many analysts, it was a sharp signal that the Latino unhappiness with the policies of incumbent Republican Gov. Pete Wilson may be so deep-seated that it has "contaminated other candidates" of the Republican Party and may continue to do so for some time, says Harry Pachon of the Tomas Rivera Institute in southern California.

Underscoring that point, Davis proclaimed in his acceptance speech that "the era of divisive, wedge issues is over once and for all" in California.

Latinos made their presence felt more directly with the election of Cruz Bustamante as lieutenant governor, the position vacated by Davis and the first statewide constitutional office to be held by a Latino in more than 100 years.

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Though the switch from Republican to Democrat in Sacramento is consequential, it didn't signal a desire for sweeping policy changes, say most analysts.

Indeed, both candidates were consummate insiders and veterans of California politics. Dan Schnur, a strategist for the state Republican Party, says "Davis ran as close to a status quo campaign as you can run without being the incumbent."

As with most California elections, the contest was essentially a race to capture the middle ground. Davis occupied that territory most successfully as a big friend of labor, choice, and education reform as well as a strong proponent of the death penalty.

Senator Boxer's victory was somewhat surprising because Mr. Fong seemed to be succeeding as the moderate choice midway through the contest. But in the final weeks, reports about his $50,000 donation to a far-right group and a flurry of attack ads by Boxer seemed to leave voters unsure of just what Fong represented. Uncertain, they opted for the known: Barbara Boxer.

California had no hot-button ballot initiatives this year. But sweeping measures to overhaul the state education system and alter a controversial power deregulation plan were defeated while an initiative allowing native Americans to run casinos without state control was approved.

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