A nascent California ballot measure that seeks to replicate Arizona's controversial crackdown on illegal immigrants is dividing the state's Republicans, with a number of prominent strategists and leaders fearing that it could further harm their party's already fraught relationship with Latinos — the fastest-growing segment of the electorate.
It's unclear whether the ballot's backers will have the financial resources to gather enough signatures to place the measure on the 2012 ballot.
Several Republicans said that even the effort to do so has the potential to increase the chasm between the party's candidates and the voting bloc whose record-breaking turnout tilted races in November and delivered a clean Democratic statewide sweep in a year in which Republicans celebrated major victories in the rest of the nation. They equated it to 1994's Proposition 187, which would have stopped illegal immigrants from receiving any state services had it not been largely voided by the courts.
"It's completely counterproductive to the future of the party as well as counterproductive to the immigration debate and coming to a real solution," said Rob Stutzman, a GOP strategist who advised failed gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman. "It allows those who make a living off the demagoguing of immigrants to continue to do so."
Supporters of the measure counter that the party's nominees suffered deep losses because the party has no clear message on immigration.
"I think a greater damage to the future of the party in this state is that we have no position or message on immigration," said Mike Spence, a conservative Republican activist. "That to me is the bigger problem. I don't see how we can be damaged more than we already are."
The debate mirrors one taking place at the national level. Several prominent GOP candidates who were successful in recent elections have taken a hard line on immigration. Party operatives and leaders who have grown worried about alienating Latinos this week announced a major outreach effort, led by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
But while national leaders are looking toward an approaching demographic shift, the clout of Latinos already is in full bloom in California.
In November, one in five voters was Latino; 80% of them cast ballots for Democratic Gov.-elect Jerry Brown, while 15% voted for Whitman despite her multimillion-dollar effort to woo them. Their participation, driven by labor unions who used the Arizona immigration law to pull Latinos to the polls, was nearly double what it was in the last gubernatorial contest. And those numbers are expected to grow.
In California, Republican candidates have long faced a quandary when dealing with immigration, frequently touting their "tough as nails" credentials as they seek the GOP nomination from the party's most conservative voters, then modulating their tone as they try to sway moderate Republicans, independents and Democrats in the general election.
The next elections will be conducted with an open primary, but it's unclear what effect that will have on the tenor of the immigration debate or which GOP candidates might have an advantage.
The California proposal, known as the Support Federal Immigration Law Act, is modeled on Arizona's suspended law, SB 1070, but has tweaks that supporters believe will allow it to survive legal challenges.
The proposal would require law enforcement officers to swiftly check the immigration status of those they stop whom they suspect are in the country illegally, as long as such verification does not hinder an investigation. It would create new hiring requirements for businesses and new penalties for those who knowingly or negligently hire illegal immigrants.
The measure also addresses prospective employees, day laborers, immigrant smugglers and sanctuary cities.
Backers need to collect 433,971 valid signatures by April 21, 2011, to qualify the measure for the ballot, which they hope to do with a combination of paid signature-gatherers and "tea party" volunteers, said Michael Erickson, the initiative's proponent and a former member of the state Republican Party's executive committee.
A key question is whether Erickson will be able to raise at least $1 million to hire signature-gatherers. Another crucial question among Republicans is what effect the effort will have on Latino voters. The issue has become a staple of newscasts in the Spanish-language media.
"What message does that send to Latinos in terms of our commitment to represent their values?" asked GOP strategist Adam Mendelsohn, adding that, based on shared values related to social issues and the economy, "Latino voters should be our voters."
Tony Quinn, a GOP demographer, said that in addition to harming the Republicans' prospects in statewide races, the measure could damage their "last vestige" of power in Sacramento — being able to stop tax increases, which require a two-thirds vote in the state Senate and Assembly.