There has never been a more self-destructive Republican political campaign than the 1994 reelection drive of former California Gov. Pete Wilson.
But this year’s campaign might even surpass those levels of GOP self immolation.
Wilson’s commercials featured grainy black-and-white film of the San Ysidro border crossing, with illegal immigrants running into California unimpeded by Border Patrol agents or anyone else, and a menacing voice intoning, “They keep coming.”
There is no question that commercial favoring passage of the anti-illegal immigrant Proposition 187 helped reelect Wilson. By arousing extreme nativist emotions, he overcame a previously large lead held by his reelection opponent, Kathleen Brown, daughter of one former governor and sister of another.
So there was instant gratification from the campaign for Republicans. But the GOP has never recovered from it.
Aside from movie star muscleman Arnold Schwarzenegger, Wilson was the last Republican candidate elected to a top-of-the-ticket job in California. For immediately after that campaign, which also featured wide passage of 187, more than 2.5 million Latinos began the process of acquiring American citizenship. They feared they might be deported if they remained non-citizens, whether they were legal or illegal immigrants.
Almost all of them registered to vote Democratic, taking California from its previous swing state status into the safely Democratic category. Neither Bill Clinton, Al Gore, nor John Kerry spent much money in California, but all three won the state easily in the elections of 1996, 2000, and 2004.
The prospects for a Republican win here are no better this fall, even if the not particularly anti-immigrant Arizona Sen. John McCain is that party’s nominee, one major reason for the effort by some GOP activists to change the way the state allocates its 55 electoral votes – by themselves almost one-fifth of what it takes to get elected President.
Mindful of all this history, California Republicans have soft-pedaled opposition to illegal immigration for years. They know Latinos are the single fastest growing racial component in America and California today, and they know how strongly Wilson turned Latinos against Republicans.
But national GOP figures spent most of the last five months berating illegal immigrants, implying all or most are ne’er do wells who pay few if any taxes and take jobs from American citizens. At the same time, some Republican candidates openly worried that the illegal immigrant influx (for indeed, they do keep coming) is some kind of deliberate attempt to reconquer the American Southwest for Mexico. Reconquista, they call it.
As a result, Hispanics are feeling the same kind of fears they did in the wake of Wilson’s 1994 commercials and passage of 187, with its attempt to deprive illegal immigrants and their children of every public service from schools to emergency room care.
Back then, no one could document the fear with specificity. One could only watch Latinos vote with their feet and later at the polls.
But now there’s firm information via a solid poll from Florida’s Pew Hispanic Center. The annual survey of America’s 47 million Latinos showed in December that even though barely one-fourth of Hispanics are here illegally, more than half fear someone close to them will be deported.
It’s precisely the same fear that drove California Latinos to become citizens and register to vote Democratic. Now it’s happening nationally. While President Bush, with his laissez faire approach to illegal immigration, managed about 40 percent of the Latino vote – the highest levels of any Republican since Ronald Reagan’s reelection campaign – only about half that many Latinos say they’re likely to vote Republican this year.
Essentially, the louder Republican candidates this winter complained about illegal immigrants, the more Hispanic votes they drove away. They hoped at the same time to attract other voters, but surveys time and again have shown that issues like the war in Iraq and health care and, for some, global warming are of far greater importance to voters than illegal immigration.
Essentially, this year’s crop of Republican candidates spent the winter ignoring the history of Pete Wilson driving Hispanic voters away from their party and for the most part fell over each other to intensify the rhetoric he used in doing so.
McCain or whoever else might become the GOP nominee may live to regret that vehemence.