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On Romney Supporter Pete Wilson, Latino Voters, the Politics of Immigration

by Pili Tobar on 02/09/2012 at 3:02pm

students fight 187Earlier this week, Mitt Romney’s campaign unveiled the endorsement of former California Governor Pete Wilson (R), a.k.a. El Diablo, the champion of California’s Proposition 187 in 1994.  Proposition 187 was the precursor to the anti-immigration laws passed this decade in Arizona, Alabama, and other states that have inspired nationwide outrage from the Latino community.  Wilson’s backing of Proposition 187 is widely credited for pushing Latino voters away from the GOP in California and turning what was once a swing state solidly blue. 

With Wilson joining Alabama/Arizona “papers, please” law architect Kris Kobach, and congressional mass deportation champion Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) in backing Romney, many observers are left wondering what the campaign is thinking.  Embracing these anti-immigrant hardliners will make it more difficult, if not impossible, for the candidate to appeal to Latino and immigrant voters, putting the 40% support he needs to win in the general election far out of reach.    

On a press call today, pollsters and political experts talked about how the politics of immigration have developed since passage of Proposition 187, and what Republican candidates competing in new swing states with growing Latino populations, like Nevada and Colorado, have to learn from the California experience. 

According to Gary Segura, Professor at Stanford University and Principal of Latino Decisions, Pete Wilson’s endorsement is likely to have serious ramifications for Romney’s campaign come November:

Pete Wilson is, in a strange way, a hero of the Latino community.  It is fair to say that he has contributed to registering and mobilizing more Latino voters than any other person in history.  It is a complete mystery to me why Governor Romney would seek the public endorsement of a retired politician, who has not held public office in 14 years, and who is so toxic to a voter bloc with which Romney already faces serious challenges.  It is hard not to conclude that Romney has given up making anything more than a symbolic play for Latino vote.

As Robert Preuhs, Political Science Professor at Metropolitan State College of Denver, pointed out:

While a preference for Democrats within the Latino community was in place in Colorado well before Proposition 187 and the explosion of state-level anti-immigration initiatives, the Latino vote has solidified around the Democratic party in recent years.  Colorado’s experience with the immigration debate has undoubtedly pushed Latinos even further toward the Democratic Party–a trend that seems likely irreversible given the Republican Party’s allegiance to its current stance on immigration policy.

Said David Damore, Political Science Professor at the University of Las Vegas:

Last weekend’s Nevada Republican caucus suggests that there is little interest among Silver State Latinos in the GOP nomination campaign. While as compared to 2008, participation in 2012 decreased by 26% for all Republicans, the decline in Latino participation was nearly 40% despite the fact that Latino voter registration in Nevada has increased significantly in the intervening four years.

Incredibly, Romney is repeating mistakes made as recently as 2010 by his friend and supporter Meg Whitman, California’s most recent Republican gubernatorial nominee, whose hypocrisy on immigration caused her to overwhelmingly lose the Latino vote on her way to losing the election.  Pete Wilson was the Chairman of Whitman’s 2010 campaign. As a candidate, Whitman made repeated extremist and hypocritical remarks on the issue of immigration reform as she struggled to move from the Republican primary to a general election battle. 

According to Eliseo Medina, International Secretary-Treasurer, Service Employees International Union:

Pete Wilson is the best organizer of Latino voters I’ve ever known. He has done more to motivate Latinos to become citizens, to register to vote, and to actually turnout on Election Day than anyone before or since. The light at the end of the tunnel is not daylight in Mitt Romney’s presidential race; it is a Latino train coming right at him. We know now the real Mitt Romney and what he is selling and Latinos are not buying. Come November, to paraphrase his fellow Republican ex-governor, it will be hasta la vista Mitt.

Frank Sharry, Executive Director at America’s Voice, summed up the call, noting:

The use of immigration as a wedge issue was originated by Gov. Pete Wilson. Considering Mitt Romney’s recent endorsements by such figures as Pete Wilson and Kris Kobach, it is remarkable that he continues to paint himself into a corner at a time when he needs at least 40% of the Latino vote to even have a shot. He seems intent on writing off Latino-heavy battleground states like Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada.

For more information on Latino voters, the politics of immigration, and key battleground states. see:

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