11/05/2010 12:13 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Why Did Democrats Sweep California? Ask Meg Whitman

You could almost hear Meg Whitman's campaign coming off the rails the day she became "tough as nails" on undocumented immigrants.

Faced with the accusation by her GOP primary opponent, Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, that Whitman was soft on "illegals," the Whitman juggernaut responded with the political equivalent of a fleet of B-52's flattening a city.

The airwaves - in English - were suddenly flooded with Whitman's assertion that she would be merciless on undocumented immigrants. She would take away their state "benefits," she would deny their children access to higher education - she would be, in the words of anti-immigrant crusader and former California Governor Pete Wilson, who appeared in her commercials, "tough as nails."

Poizner's attack brought him within striking distance of Whitman in the polls. Suddenly the confident, positive campaign of California renewal that Whitman's ad-savvy advisers had devised morphed into a red-meat filled, immigrant-bashing rant.

And it worked. Whitman's campaign crushed Poizner by establishing Meg as the true heir of Pete Wilson's legacy.

California's GOP primary voters are deep-red conservatives. In the 1990's they had enthusiastically supported Governor Wilson's Proposition 187, a brutal attack on undocumented people that was later found to be unconstitutional.

Proposition 187 was a watershed event for California politics. Its core proposition of dehumanizing undocumented immigrants into "illegals" provoked a backlash. Latino voter registration shot up, and Democrats have become the dominant party in the state ever since.

So the lesson for Republican politicians would have seemed clear: use Latino-bashing at your own peril.

But this is the year of the Arizona law. The now infamous SB 1070, widely seen as a racial profiling, discriminatory law by Latinos, was passed and almost implemented (it is currently on hold as the 9th Circuit Court hears arguments on its constitutionality).

The apparent message of Arizona's passage of a Prop 187-style law on steroids was two-fold. First, that right-wing Republicans could build electoral majorities bashing Latinos. And second, that Latinos do not vote, even to stop state-sponsored discrimination against them.

As many Republican politicians have told me, Latinos march in the streets a lot but vote very little. Therefore they are not an electoral threat. Just look at Arizona Governor Jan Brewer's Lazarus-like rise from the polling basement to re-election once she embraced the formerly fringe SB 1070.

But California is not Arizona. Proposition 187 is not some ancient history from another century - for many Californians of Latino descent it is the symbol of racism, intolerance and divisiveness. The collective memory is fresh and easily stimulated by anything that strikes these voters as vaguely comparable to Prop 187 in substance or rhetoric.

Months before Whitman's self-inflicted Nannygate scandal, doubts among Latinos began to rise. The California Nurses Association, an early Whitman foe, began making ad buys in Spanish-language media - replaying Whitman's own "tough as nails" radio spot verbatim.

Whitman responded by airing syrupy paeans to her appreciation of Latinos and our unique contribution to the fabric of California. Literally in the same commercial block (as it happened for months on my radio show) you would hear the two versions of Whitman - Latino-basher and Latino-lover, back to back.

The pre-Internet paradigm of pivoting to your partisan base in primaries only to slide towards the center in the general election crashed against the era of permanent media on YouTube and in many other sites that catalog the campaigns with a luxury of detail and video evidence. There for everyone to see and hear was Whitman-as-Wilson assuring the GOP right-wing about her true intentions on immigration policy.

Back in the 1990s (and in today's Arizona, apparently) this would not be a problem. Latinos were a paltry 9% of the electorate during the Proposition 187 vote. You could thumb your nose at them, as Governor Wilson did, and still expect to win elections.

By the 2000 election, thanks to Wilson and his brainchild Prop 187, Latino voters had become a growing, albeit still small, part of the electorate. At approximately 14%, the Latino vote became important, but hardly determinate in California elections.

Flash-forward to 2010 and the picture is quite different. In these elections, Latinos made up 8% of the national electorate - but 22% of California's voters. According to exit poll data from Edison Research, and reported by the Los Angeles Times, Latinos broke 73% for Brown versus 18% for Whitman.

In this very Republican national election cycle, California Democrats not only picked up the governorship, but also elected a Democratic Lt. Governor, Treasurer, Secretary of State, Insurance Commissioner and actually expanded the Democratic majority in the State Assembly. (The race for Attorney General is still too close to call, but the Democratic candidate is currently leading.)

And of course, Senator Barbara Boxer defeated Carly Fiorina by a comfortable margin: 52% for Boxer vs. 43% for Fiorina.

Boxer won 68% of the Latino vote, compared to 28% for Fiorina.

Interestingly, and worrisome for candidates planning to play the Latino-bashing card in future elections, Latinos are still voting well below the levels of other ethnic groups, such as non-Hispanic whites and African-Americans. In other words, the true power of the Latino electorate still remains to be fully felt in the political system.

For those trying to learn the lessons of why California was swept by a Democratic tide, the message is clear: Latino-bashing is a dead-end political strategy.

Just ask Meg.