By Harold Meyerson
Thursday, June 10, 2010; A17
The good news for Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina here in California was that they won their Republican primaries. The bad news was that they had to run in Republican primaries.
Whitman, now the GOP nominee for governor, and Fiorina, the GOP nominee for senator, dispatched their nearest primary rivals by margins of better than 2 to 1. Each spent a queen's ransom to do so -- in Whitman's case, close to $80 million of her own money -- but both former CEOs have plenty left over to take on their Democratic opponents this fall: in Whitman's case, Jerry Brown, the once and, he hopes, future governor; in Fiorina's case, incumbent Sen. Barbara Boxer.
But California Republican primaries have a nasty habit of rendering their winners unelectable in November, and this year's contest looks like it will be no exception. To win, Whitman and Fiorina -- conventional conservative business Republicans both -- had to take positions so far to the right that their chances of winning a state in which Barack Obama commands a 59 percent approval rating are slim. During one debate with her Republican opponents, Fiorina affirmed the right of suspected terrorists on no-fly lists to buy guns, presumably lest the gods of the National Rifle Association strike her dead on the spot. At a campaign event at Los Angeles International Airport on Saturday, Boxer, never one to let a hanging curveball go unswatted, contrasted Fiorina's guns-to-terrorists stance with her own co-authorship of a law allowing pilots to carry guns in cockpits.
But the issue most damaging for Whitman and Fiorina is immigration. Pressed by their GOP primary opponents and the Republican electorate to endorse Arizona's draconian new law, Fiorina proclaimed her support for it while Whitman countered the charges from her right that she was soft on immigration by affirming that she was "100 percent against amnesty" and demanding a huge increase in border enforcement. To bolster her credibility, her ads featured former Republican governor Pete Wilson -- champion of 1994's Proposition 187, which would have denied all public services, including the right to attend primary and secondary schools, to illegal immigrants.
Wilson won reelection in 1994 by backing 187, which the courts subsequently struck down. But his victory was probably the most pyrrhic in modern American politics. Threatened and enraged by 187, California's Latino immigrants began naturalizing, registering and voting in record numbers. Southern California's Latino-led labor movement -- the most energized and strategically savvy labor movement in the nation -- became particularly adept at turning out Latino voters for Democratic candidates and causes.
In the process, the California electorate has been transformed -- moving the state decisively into the Democratic column. In the 1994 election, according to the nonprofit William C. Velásquez Institute, which seeks to raise minorities' political and economic participation, Latinos counted for 11.4 percent of California voters. By 2008, they comprised 21.4 percent. And particularly when immigration is an issue, theirs is a heavily Democratic vote. "There's a whole generation of Latino voters who don't believe the Republicans look out for them," Maria Elena Durazo, who heads the Los Angeles County AFL-CIO, told me on Election Day. "We ran against Pete Wilson for years after he was out of office. And, voilà! He's back -- he's vouching for Whitman!" Labor will make sure the Latino community knows it. Already, the California Nurses Association is running an ad on Spanish-language radio that splices in a clip from a Whitman primary commercial in which she and Wilson discuss cracking down on immigration.
When your own primary ad is directed against you by your opponents in the general election, you have a fundamental problem. It's not just that Republican nativism pushes perhaps a fifth of the electorate into the Democratic column. It's that the state's Republicans are simply far to the right of the majority of Californians -- so much so that they do not have a majority of registered voters in any one of the state's 53 congressional districts.
There's a reason Arnold Schwarzenegger is the only Republican elected to a major statewide office in California since 1994 -- and it's not his celebrity status. It's because, when he was first elected governor, he did not have to run in and win a Republican primary: He was elected in a special recall election open to candidates and voters from all parties.
Whitman and Fiorina had no such luck. In winning their nominations, they said things deeply offensive to a fatally large swath of California voters. Their campaigns may be gold-plated, but they have ears of purest tin.