recently as 1996 - 17 years ago. George H.W. Bush in 1988 was the last
Republican to carry the state in a presidential race, although moderate
Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger served two terms as governor from 2003 to 2011.
"The party reached the bottom, and it's been real tough to rebound, but the part is revitalizing itself because we got the grass roots fired up," said California Young Republicans Chairman Joe Sanchis.
Mr. Vidak outpolled Ms. Perez in the May election to fill the seat of a retiring Democratic state senator, but a runoff was needed when he fell short of the simple majority needed to claim the seat. Mr. Vidak prevailed again in the runoff election last week with almost 54 percent of the vote.
Honing the message
Mr. Vidak said he got his message right and estimated that he had to win perhaps one of four Hispanic votes to carry the district. Previous GOP candidates for the seat took an estimated one of eight Hispanic votes - and routinely lost the four-county district.
"I ran on jobs, affordable energy and water, opposition to the $100 billion 'bullet train' federal boondoggle that Leticia supported for union jobs - and on common sense, which has no party lines," Mr. Vidak said.
Immigration was also a big deal in my campaign," Mr. Vidak said. "You can't live here without knowing many people who have some sort of documentation problem that the federal government has done nothing about for 25 years."
That is not quite the same message delivered on Mr. Vidak's behalf by Mr. Allen, the GOP assemblyman who worked the district for Mr. Vidak for three weekends in near 100-degree temperatures, bringing "tons of volunteers" with him from all over California.
"A path to citizenship [for illegal immigrants] was not part of the message," Mr. Allen said. "What mattered were the economic issues and that this was the first time these voters we visited talked to anyone from either party."
That "path to citizenship" disparity between the Vidak message and the one delivered by Mr. Allen and the army of volunteers does muddle the lesson the race holds for GOP candidates looking to break through elsewhere.
Although eventual citizenship for qualifying illegals is anathema to those in his party who put the rule of law above virtually all else, Mr. Vidak said his campaign embraced the importance of at least legalizing those already in the U.S. He said the issue of eventual citizenship aside, his opposition to breaking up families by sending some members back to their home countries is shared by voters of all stripes in the Central Valley, "which is very conservative - everybody loves guns and goes to church."
"They need to cross the border freely go to Grandma's funeral, but they can't get back," Mr. Vidak said. "We need to give these voters status that lets them cross the border freely, work here and pay taxes here."
Spanish-speaking Republican volunteers going door to door, making pitches in Spanish where necessary in the 60 percent Hispanic district. Mr. Vidak also managed to create a little political daylight from hard-liners in his party on the issue of eventually granting citizenship to illegal immigrants.
"We talked to them in their homes, where they are most comfortable on the issues that matter most to them: improving the economy, lower taxes, less government
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