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Whitman paid a high price for Latino distrust of GOP

A former strategist says the candidate lost so conclusively because her party continues to alienate the state's fastest-growing voter group.

December 20, 2010|George Skelton | Capitol Journal

From Sacramento — Meg Whitman's former lead spokesman is starting to speak up about the candidate's losing race for governor. And he's shouting about the need for Republicans to stop the demagoguery over illegal immigration.

Senior advisor Rob Stutzman isn't exactly spilling his guts about the former EBay chief's spectacular thumping. The billionaire lost to low-budget Jerry Brown by 54% to 41%, despite spending a record $160 million-plus, roughly $142 million of it her own money.

But the veteran Republican strategist is blaming the mini-landslide size of Whitman's loss on some ugly dust-ups over illegal immigration that alienated Latinos from the GOP.

On Nov. 2, a record 22% of the California electorate was Latino. They voted heavily for Democrat Brown — somewhere between 64% and 80%, depending on which poll you believe.

Whatever the real figure, it should scare the GOP because Latinos are by far California's fastest-growing voter group.

"Republicans need to understand that they live in suburbs with second-generation Mexican American neighbors whose parents came here and worked in agriculture and the service industries and are very proud" of their families' success, Stutzman says.

"They sit around at cocktail parties and they listen on talk shows and hear their parents referred to as 'illegals.' And we wonder why these people don't want to register as Republicans."

Stutzman, 42, is no RINO — what right-wing ideologues deride as a Republican in Name Only — even if he did serve as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's first communications director. His party credentials include communications jobs with former Atty. Gen. Dan Lundgren and state Senate Republicans. He also ran a successful 2000 initiative campaign to ban same-sex marriage.

Don't get him started on illegal immigration. He favors regulating immigration but detests reviling immigrants.

"We've got to stop looking at it as purely a legal issue," he says. "If you want to make it a moral issue, we should appreciate the virtue of men and women trying to make the best life possible for their families.

"As long as radio talk show guys demagogue on the issue and Republicans are cowed and not willing to stand up to it, nothing's going to change."

Meaning party candidates will continue to lose statewide elections. In November, it was a clean Democratic sweep.

"This is our circular firing squad until we get beyond the rhetoric and slogans and we start to show empathy," Stutzman continues.

"Didn't we say the same about the Irish and Italians 100 years ago? 'They smell funny and drink too much.' In California, we need to turn the page."

But there's a ballot initiative afoot in California to duplicate Arizona's controversial crackdown on illegal immigrants. It's sponsored by a former member of the state GOP's executive committee, Michael Erickson.

Stutzman blames the Arizona law for helping to motivate California Latinos to turn out "and vote very anti-Republican."

And he accuses Whitman's Republican primary opponent, Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, of being "really reckless" in inserting illegal immigration as the "front and center" issue. "No question we were hurt."

OK, time out.

It was, after all, Whitman who ran a TV ad featuring former Gov. Pete Wilson — a devil incarnate for many Latinos — promising that she would be "tough as nails" on illegal immigration.

It was Whitman who endorsed the Arizona law — but only for Arizona, she weakly insisted, not for California. Many Latinos saw that as a distinction without a difference — and ominous.

And it was Whitman who proclaimed that she wouldn't allow admission to community colleges or state universities for high school grads who had been carted to California illegally as children by their parents. That wasn't quite the show of "empathy" that Stutzman calls for.

All that began as Whitman was trying to protect her right flank from the extremist Poizner. I always thought she paid too much attention to the lightweight. But Stutzman says Whitman couldn't risk ignoring him because at one point he pulled within single digits of her.

Big waste of money and potential Latino votes. Whitman wound up winning the GOP nomination by nearly 38 points.

Fortunately for the likes of Whitman, there won't be any party nominations starting in 2012 when a new open primary system takes effect. "Somebody like her, I would advise to take a serious look at running as a nonpartisan," Stutzman says.

The primary campaign baggage became too burdensome in the general election. And the final straw was the disclosure — aided by the Brown-friendly nurses union — that Whitman for nine years had employed an illegal immigrant maid.

After having learned that the housekeeper was undocumented, Whitman said, she had fired her — very coldly, it seemed.

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