LOS ANGELES -- As California Republicans wind up a costly party primary election, they'd do well to remember how Arnold Schwarzenegger became the only Republican elected to a major statewide office since 1994.
It wasn't his celebrity. It wasn't his program. It wasn't his opponent (though Gray Davis was certainly an unpopular governor). It wasn't even his accent.
Schwarzenegger was elected governor in 2003 chiefly because he didn't have to enter a Republican primary. The contest in which he won the statehouse was that most unusual of electoral animals, a recall election, in which candidates of all parties, and voters of all parties, participated. Arnold never had to careen rightward to win a plurality of Republican voters in a Republican primary. The electoral recall process eliminates primaries altogether.
And that, by the evidence of this year's primary, seems to be the only way to ensure Republican victories in statewide California elections. For in this year's primary, the Republicans have had to run so far to the right that they have rendered themselves unelectable come November.
None of the major Republican candidates for governor (former e-Bay CEO Meg Whitman, who's put more than $80 million of her own money into her primary campaign, and Silicon Valley honcho turned Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner) or senator (former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and former Congressman Tom Campbell) came to the race with a rabidly right-wing pedigree. Whitman, Poizner, and Fiorina were conventional Northern California high-tech CEOs, with a history of making strategic campaign contributions to Democrats when necessary. In his failed state Assembly campaign in a liberal Northern California district in 2004, Poizner actually got a 100 percent rating from NARAL for his answers to the pro-choice group's questionnaire.
This year, however, his supporters are picketing Whitman for allegedly backing public funding for abortions. There is, apparently, no position too far right for Republican candidates to embrace. In a recent televised debate, Fiorina said that people whose names appear on no-fly lists as suspected terrorists should nonetheless have the right to buy guns. Campbell -- a genuine moderate who has fallen behind Fiorina in the polls in recent weeks precisely because he declines to go to extremes -- looked dumbstruck at her answer.
The real killer issue for the Republicans this year is immigration. Trailing Whitman by a significant margin in the polls, Poizner decided his one chance to come from behind was to embrace the just-enacted Arizona anti-immigrant law and accuse Whitman of being soft on immigration. Whitman, who hasn't endorsed the Arizona statute, responded with ads from her campaign chairman, former governor and immigrant-basher Pete Wilson, affirming that she is "100 percent against amnesty" and calling for more border security. In the Senate race, Fiorina is also calling for a crackdown on immigrants (not to mention, running ads that feature Sarah Palin's endorsement of her candidacy).
Problem is, when Wilson won re-election in 1994 by linking his candidacy to Proposition 187, which would have denied all public services to undocumented immigrants, the Latino share of the state electorate was just 11.4 percent. By the time of the 2008 election, the Latino share of the electorate had grown to 21.4 percent, and, ever since Wilson's embrace of 187, the Latino vote has gone overwhelmingly to the Democrats. The tough-on-immigrants stance in a California general election today, particularly if the issue is as hot as it is now, virtually guarantees defeat. The combined black and Latino share of this November's electorate is likely to be close to 30 percent, and assuming the Democrats win 80 percent of that, Republicans will have to win about 65 percent of the combined white and Asian vote to corral an overall majority. That's not going to happen.
Democrats and their allies are already running ads in the Spanish-language media highlighting the GOP candidates' anti-immigrant zealotry. The California Nurses Association has produced an ad that's running on radio personality Piolin's show, the highest rated radio show in Southern California, that includes a clip from a Whitman ad in which she and Wilson talk about cracking down at the border.
When the Democratic strategy for winning in November is to rerun the ads that the Republicans ran to win their primary, it becomes clear that the biggest obstacle to Republican victories in California is Republican voters. In a poll from the Public Policy Institute of California last month, fully 75 percent of California Republicans disapproved of President Barack Obama, though his overall disapproval rating was just 39 percent. In a Los Angeles Times-USC poll from late May, Californians approved of Obama's performance by a 59 percent to 38 percent margin. Asked whether they wanted a senator to support or oppose Obama's agenda, 54 percent said support, while just 35 percent said oppose.
Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, who will likely face Fiorina this November, is counting on the state's center-left orientation to pull her though, despite the widespread antipathy to longtime incumbents. At an appearance this Saturday at a new emergency-rescue facility at the Los Angeles airport, being built with funding from last year's federal stimulus legislation, she took Fiorina to task for her NRA-über-alles opposition to gun controls on no-fly listees, pointing out that she had co-authored the bill permitting airline pilots to carry guns in their cockpits.
Even if today's likely Republican winners, Whitman and Fiorina, hadn't had to posture right to win their primaries, the resumés they bring to their races don't look particularly helpful either, in a time of major recession brought on by financial elites running wild. As CEO of Hewlett-Packard, Fiorina offshored 30,000 jobs -- a figure that Boxer brought up on Saturday and is sure to bring up at nearly every campaign stop between now and November. As CEO of e-Bay, Whitman was given a seat on the board of Goldman Sachs and has been accused of getting favorable deals from the embattled investment bank.
Whitman and Fiorina will plow their fortunes into the November races, but the weight of having to win the primary by moving right will likely prove an obstacle that all the money in the world cannot lift. By the evidence of several polls, Campbell would have proved a more formidable foe to Boxer than Fiorina: In the Times/USC poll, Boxer trailed him 38 percent to 45 percent, while she led Fiorina 44 percent to 38 percent. (In the same poll, Whitman trailed former Gov. Jerry Brown, who has no serious opposition in today's Democratic gubernatorial primary, by 38 percent to 45 percent.) But while Campbell's moderation made him a stronger November candidate, it ensured his defeat in today's Republican primary.
The obstacle to Republican success in California is Republicans. Unless GOP candidates can find a way, as Schwarzenegger did, to skip their own primaries, they'd be advised to find another state.