Meg Whitman: California's Newest Latina

06/17/2010 02:42 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Vanquishing her primary opponent Steve Poizner proved to be a surprisingly easy, if wildly expensive, endeavor for Meg Whitman. Winning the hearts and minds - or at least the votes - of California's Latino citizens will not prove so easy.

The Republican nominee seeking to be California's next governor showed a willingness to fight hard for her campaign - a killer instinct honed in Whitman's years of driving businesses forward.

Steve Poizner, also a Silicon Valley success story, veered hard right during the primary in his attempt to erase Whitman's early advantage in the race. In the process, he focused on a Pete Wilson-like anti-immigrant message.

In Poizner's inaugural campaign ad, he linked California's massive budget crisis to the costs of "illegals". While there is plenty of independent empirical data to prove the opposite story (see the fascinating Cato Institute study on the real effects of illegal immigration to the U.S. economy), Poizner was not really making an economic argument.

In the mold of Pete Wilson, the California Governor best known to Latinos for the infamous Proposition 187 that tried to vilify migrants and keep their kids from attending public schools, Poizner sought to motivate the Nativist right of the California GOP with the simple message: I'll get rid of these people.

Aside from the economic fallacy of Poizner's argument, it was initially effective in closing the yawning 50 point gap in the polls between Poizner and Whitman a few weeks from the primary election. Some polls before the election showed Poizner within striking distance of delivering an upset.

Whitman responded with an effective advertising avalanche that sought to give Whitman the hard-right, anti-migrant bona-fides claimed by Poizner.

In fact, she used the equivalent of a bunker-busting bomb on Poizner: Pete Wilson.

Former Governor Wilson is famous in politics as the man that drove the California Republican Party into state-wide irrelevancy. Wilson's Prop 187 was the single most effective tool for Latino registration as Democrats and their subsequent participation in the electoral process, thereby changing California's politics forever.

Since Wilson, no Republican nominee has carried California in a Presidential election. The state of Ronald Reagan has become an arid dessert for statewide Republicans. And at the legislature, the GOP hangs on by its nails - a couple of seats away from losing their 1/3 minority and with it their capacity to block the dominant Democrats in both the State Senate and Assembly.

Having stomped on Poizner, Whitman is now pivoting her message. Gone are the radio ads with Pete Wilson where the father of the California anti-Latino movement assured Republican primary voters that Whitman would be tough on migrants - as tough as he was.

Now Whitman is launching a state-wide campaign on the major Spanish-language media outlets to reintroduce herself to Latinos. In a series of slick TV and Web ads, Whitman comes across as sweet as morning dew, devoid of the get tough message that has linked Whitman in the Latino psyche with the Wilson wing of the GOP.

While Whitman's deep pockets will allow her to carpet bomb the state with these repositioning messages (her expenditures and their effect on creating perception were awkwardly linked to Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels by Democratic nominee Jerry Brown), it is not at all clear that Latinos will buy it.

It is hard for non-Latinos to fully comprehend the fear and loathing Pete Wilson viscerally provokes among most Latinos voters. Whitman's intimate embrace of Wilson's message in her battle with Poizner may define her much more than any clumsy attempt by Jerry Brown to vilify Whitman with weird Nazi references.

While Whitman has historically been in favor of comprehensive immigration reform, and furthermore has stated that she would not sign an Arizona-style anti-Latino law, count on the Brown campaign and its allies to use the very same spots Whitman made to show she was más macho than Poizner on immigration.

Already on my Univision radio show an umbrella group for pro-Brown unions ran the Whitman/Wilson anti-migrant ad in its entirety; at first, I thought that the Whitman campaign had made a huge blunder in its media buy. Only later, when I heard the commercial tag, did I realize that it was being paid for by Brown supporters who were literally using Whitman's words against her on a Spanish-language network.

So can Whitman be elected Governor without significant Latino support? Probably not. California's demography has shifted significantly over the last three decades and Hispanics are now an electoral powerhouse in the state.

Can Whitman change the perception that she is Pete Wilson in heels? Perhaps.

It will undoubtedly take more than a massive media buy to change Whitman's image with Latinos. Whitman needs some kind of denouement, a moment when she connects with Latinos and transcends the very hard image she built to slay Poizner.