Poor Meg Whitman. Those are three words you don't often see in the same sentence. The billionaire former chief executive of eBay and Republican nominee for California governor spent more than $70 million of her own money to win the primary, and political observers say she could spend another $100 million against her Democratic opponent, Jerry Brown.
But when you're a Republican, money can't buy you love -- at least not from Latino voters. This is especially true in the dozen or so states, including California, where the immigration issue doubles as a chew toy for Republican politicians.
Those are the states that tend to have significant Latino populations and where non-Latinos are the most nervous about changing demographics. That's where you're most likely to have Republicans stoking those flames. But it's because you do have significant numbers of Latinos in those places that it's also a good idea to tread lightly.
In California, where 20 percent of the electorate is Latino, Whitman needs at least 30 percent of the Latino vote to avoid being walloped by Brown, who has a special place in the hearts of older Latinos. Brown earned that affection by appointing large numbers of Latinos to judgeships and government positions in the 1970s, and because of his support for labor leader César Chávez and the United Farm Workers Union.
Yet, when it comes to attracting Latino voters at a time when much of the GOP is still feasting on the red meat of the anti-Latino immigration debate, Whitman is facing a nearly impossible task. Here's more bad news: She has to work fast. In the age of the Internet, social media and the 24-hour news cycle, campaigns unfold more quickly. Voters of all colors make up their minds earlier, and, once they do, it's hard to get them to take another look at a candidate.
That's why California voters are now suffering from a case of Whitman whiplash. Just a few weeks ago, as the Republican primary was winding down, Whitman was still busy fending off attacks by her opponent, Steve Poizner. The state insurance commissioner was desperately trying to paint her as soft on illegal immigration because she previously expressed support for giving the undocumented a shot at earned legal status and because she opposes Arizona's tough new immigration law.
Suddenly, the once-moderate Republican who served as an adviser to John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign was out there talking about how she was "100 percent opposed to granting amnesty to immigrants who entered the country illegally" and how California needed an "economic fence with a strong e-verification system that holds employers accountable for only hiring documented workers." She also called for state investigators to inspect workplaces to make sure employers didn't hire illegal immigrants, deploying the National Guard to the California-Mexico border, cracking down on sanctuary cities that protect the undocumented, denying driver's licenses to illegal immigrants and barring illegal immigrant students from state universities. She even threw in a promise to enforce a state ban on bilingual education, which has nothing to do with illegal immigration but sounds good to the right wing.
But that was the old Meg. The new Meg wants Latino voters to know: Se habla español. Whitman recently launched a Spanish-language ad that tries to market her as a kinder and gentler Republican and sets a new standard for chutzpah.
The script goes like this: "Meg Whitman is a different kind of candidate. She's a business leader ready to fix Sacramento, ready to create more jobs and better schools in California. She respects our community. She's the Republican who opposes the Arizona law and opposed Proposition 187. She stands for a real change. She has a specific plan for a new California, with more jobs, better schools and less bureaucracy. ... Meet Meg Whitman, a different kind of candidate, and the governor California needs." Notice the code words that are expected to resonate with Latino voters. Jobs. Schools. Respect. New. Different.
It sounds as if someone has been listening to her pricey Latino marketing consultant. Here are some words Whitman can have gratis:
Cynical. Hypocritical. Shameful. Insulting.
Navarrette's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.