Immigration Makes California Primary Races Tough for Republicans

Republican Candidates Try to Please Conservative Base without Sacrificing Electability in November


June 7, 2010

The revival of the national immigration debate has left Republican candidates in Tuesday's gubernatorial and Senate primaries in California facing a perilous tradeoff. They want to please the party's conservative base -- and preserve their broader appeal for the general election.

GOP hopefuls Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner are competing for the nomination to succeed Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is barred from running again by term limits. Schwarzenegger, a moderate Republican, has seen his popularity greatly diminish, particularly among the conservative voters expected to dominate the Republican primary.

In a bid to win over conservatives, Poizner, California's insurance commissioner, has sought to make immigration a defining issue. He has expressed strong support for the controversial Arizona law on illegal immigration and has attacked Whitman for opposing it, with one ad calling it the "key difference" between them.

Poizner criticized the decision by the City of Los Angeles to boycott Arizona businesses to protest the immigration law. At a news conference on June 2, he pledged if elected to require all state contractors to provide proof of their employee's immigration status, boycotting any firms that have hired illegal immigrants.

Whitman, the former CEO of eBay, who has consistently led Poizner in the polls, has sought to show that while she opposes the Arizona law, she is not weak on illegal immigration. In her own television advertising, she promises "to secure our border with absolutely no amnesty," as part of her effort to "save California."

This position, however, is a switch from the rhetoric she used in the earliest stages of her campaign. Back in November, Whitman told a largely Latino audience that she supported "comprehensive immigration reform." While the Whitman campaign now maintains that this referred to her plans for enhanced border security and a guest worker program, the phrase generally implies a path to legalization for illegal immigrants currently in the United States, and the campaign did not object to this characterization until the attacks from Poizner began.

Republicans Positions Could Alienate Latinos, Aid Democrat

The immigration debate could compromise Republicans' chances of winning in November. Hispanics compromise approximately 37 percent of California's population and candidates cannot afford to alienate Latino voters, large majorities of whom oppose the Arizona law and favor earned legalization.

The situation reminds some Californians of the controversy over Proposition 187, a ballot measure heavily promoted by former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and approved by voters in 1994, which would have prevented illegal immigrants from using public services such as health care and education. Although Wilson, now Whitman's campaign chairman, rode the initiative to reelection, constitutional challenges prevented it from ever taking effect and many observers have blamed the animosity engendered among Hispanics by the effort for Republican's electoral difficulties in the state in the years since.

The California Nurses Association began running Spanish-language ads last week on Los Angeles radio stations, tying Whitman to Wilson's immigration policies.

While Whitman and Poizner bid for conservative support on Tuesday, "the makeup of the electorate changes dramatically when you go from a GOP primary to the general election in California," said Mark Baldassare, president and CEO of the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California. He said immigration is "an issue that in the fall election could potentially alienate not just Latino voters but independent voters who hold more moderate views on this topic."

In the fall, the Republican nominee will face Democrat Jerry Brown, the state's Attorney General, who served as governor from 1975 to 1983.

Funding could be a challenge for Brown. The GOP primary has seen massive levels of spending, with Whitman spending over $60 million of her own money and $80 million overall. The Poizner campaign has added another $30 million in spending, while Brown has spent minimal amounts and raised about $20 million for the general election. With Whitman pledging to spend up to $150 million of her own money in the general election, Brown has sought to improve his fundraising.

Democrats are hopeful that immigration's role in the GOP primary creates an opportunity for Brown. "My suspicion is that immigration will help Republicans in the short-term -- the next couple of months -- but not in the long-term, and I put November in the long term," said Nathan Daschle, the executive director of the Democratic Governors Association.

Senate Race Focuses on Electability

Voters will also nominate candidates for the U.S. Senate on Tuesday. In the Republican race, ex-Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina leads former Rep. Tom Campbell and state Assemblyman Chuck DeVore. All three candidates have expressed support for the Arizona legislation, incurring the same risks as Whitman and Poizner.

On ABC News' "Top Line" Fiorina said, "I support the Arizona law. The people of Arizona did what they felt they had to do, absent the federal government's decision to do its job." Fiorina, the frontrunner, has focused her campaign on a message of using her corporate expertise to bring jobs to California. However, she was criticized during the 2008 Presidential campaign, in which she served as an advisor to John McCain, for her multi-million dollar "golden parachute" severance package from HP.

She received a somewhat unexpected boost from the endorsement of Sarah Palin. Many had expected Palin to back DeVore, who has been characterized as a Tea Party favorite. Palin, however, said in her endorsement that "Carly is the Commonsense Conservative that California needs and our country could sure use in these trying times."

Campbell began the election season as a candidate for governor, but Switched to the Senate race in part because of Whitman's willingness to spend her wealth. Fiorina has also spent heavily, though, attacking Campbell in advertisements -- including a now-infamous web video that came to be known as "demon sheep". Campbell has struggled to keep pace, temporarily withdrawing television advertising last week. A libertarian on most social issues, Campbell has focused his rhetoric on his electability in the final days of the campaign.

Incumbent Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer has begun to prepare for the general election battle. She has been targeted by national Republicans as a particularly important target for the fall.

She faces a quixotic primary challenge from blogger Mickey Kaus, who has characterized his campaign as primarily focused on raising issues and offering voters a choice. He represents a dissenting Democratic voice on immigration, arguing that comprehensive immigration reform is an illusory stop-gap measure. In his campaign ad , Kaus says he can take this and other dissenting Democratic positions because "I don't have a political career."

Candidates Look Toward General Election

In the last week of the primary campaign, the leading candidates have begun to shift their focus to the general election. Campbell's final ad has emphasized his ability to beat Boxer and draws direct comparisons with her policies, including toward immigration. Fiorina has continued direct attacks on Boxer, while Boxer has raised her fundraising targets to prepare for the campaign.

In the governor's race, Brown began running an Internet advertisement targeting Whitman and a video criticizing the partisanship of the GOP primary. Whitman has criticized both Brown's prior term in office and what she alleges is lack of specific policy proposals.

While immigration has shifted the dynamics of the primary races, the nominees will likely focus on economic issues in the general election, and look to appeal to moderate independents. "Our elections in California," says Baldassare, "get determined by candidates positioning themselves to be in the middle of the political spectrum."