Meg Whitman’s Failed 2010 Run is a Cautionary Tale
When Mitt Romney advisor Eric Fehrnstrom’s made his “Etch-a-Sketch” comments to CNN yesterday he revealed that the campaign planned “to hit a reset button for the fall campaign.” Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post helpfully weighed in with the suggestion Romney start his move back to the center by changing positions on immigration: “Romney said that, as president, he would veto the Dream Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants who attend college. He promoted the notion of ‘self-deportation’ as a means of dealing with illegal immigration. And he praised Arizona’s intrusive immigration law as a ‘model for the nation. Hello? Latino vote?”
Could it work? A cautionary tale can be found in the failed 2010 California gubernatorial campaign of Meg Whitman. When she started her campaign she set out to be the candidate who was going to reposition the California Republican Party with the one in five voters in the state who are Latino. She surrounded herself with former Bush consultants and took pro-immigration positions. The plan was to withstand the pressure from her right-wing challenger to get the GOP nomination, and, like George W. Bush, go on to win at least 40% of the Latino vote by showing that she was on a new kind of Republican on immigration.
But her fumbling hypocrisy on immigration during her primary destroyed her prospects in the general election. Whitman gave in to provocation from her primary opponent Steve Poizner and ran ads stating that her position on illegal immigration was “crystal clear,” and that she opposed “amnesty” and “benefits” such as being able to attend public universities. Whitman even rolled out former Governor Pete Wilson – who is widely despised by Latinos in California for vilifying the community in order to pass Proposition 187 and win re-election as Governor in 1994 – who promised that “Meg will be tough as nails on illegal immigration.”
Once she wrapped up the nomination, she tried to move to the center in the general election – at least in Spanish. For example, she tried to have it both ways on the Arizona “show me your papers” law. In English, she said “I would let the Arizona law stand for Arizona. […] My view is you gotta let the states do what they gotta do until the federal government proves they can secure these borders.” In Spanish, her ads said, “She respects our community. She’s the Republican who opposes the Arizona law, and she opposed Proposition 187.” Evidently, she and her campaign did not understand that Latino voters are bilingual, intelligent and, like most voters, turned off by rank hypocrisy.
The final nail in the coffin came when news broke that Whitman had employed an undocumented worker from Mexico named Nicky Diaz for nine years. While the mainstream media focused on whether or not Whitman broke the law, the Latino immigrant community and Spanish language media asked how could Whitman break faith with someone so close to the family, most egregiously by calling for Ms. Diaz to be deported during the final weeks of the campaign.
As a result, it’s no surprise that Whitman lost the Latino vote to Jerry Brown by a stunning margin of 86-13%, losing the election to Gov. Jerry Brown (D-CA) in the process. Nor is it a surprise that Whitman later acknowledged the damage that mishandling immigration did to her candidacy – and continues to do to her Party. In 2011, Whitman said, “My view is that the immigration discussion, the rhetoric the Republican Party uses, is not helpful; it’s not helpful in a state with the Latino population we have…We as a party are going to have to make some changes, how we think about immigration, and how we talk about immigration.” Unfortunately for Whitman’s preferred candidate in 2012, Mitt Romney doesn’t seem to have received the message.
According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice, “Mitt Romney is between a rock and a hard place. If he stays hard right on immigration he may have difficulty winning more than 20% of the Latino vote – a far cry from the 40% needed by the GOP nominee to compete in Latino-influenced states. If he flip flops and tries to move to the center he will get blowback from the nativist wing of the GOP and reinforce his reputation as a hypocritical flip-flopper with Latino (and other) voters. His only hope is if that Etch-a-Sketch is also a time machine that can go back in time and re-set Romney’s whole approach to immigration.”
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