LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Republican Meg Whitman has caught Democrat Jerry Brown flat-footed with an aggressive push for Latino voters in the California governor’s race, making quick inroads with a traditionally Democratic constituency in an incendiary year for U.S. immigration politics.
Whitman, a billionaire political novice making her first run for office in a campaign with national implications, seemingly stunned Brown with a Spanish-language TV-and-billboard ad blitz.
That netted her a 14-point gain since March to 39 percent support among the state’s Latinos, according to a Field Poll.
Whitman, a former eBay chief executive, needs only about a third of Latino voters to form a winning coalition that would also include conservatives in Orange and San Diego counties, the Central Valley and Inland Empire, one analyst calculated.
“Jerry Brown will win the Latino vote, let’s get that out there right now. He will get the majority of the Latino vote. What Meg Whitman needs to do is get 33 to 35 percent of it,” said Alan Hoffenblum, a Republican political strategist and publisher of the California Target Book.
Republicans nationwide are licking their chops at the idea of Whitman beating Brown, a popular former governor running in what is considered a reliably Democratic state, and she pulled ahead of Brown in a recent poll.
Whitman, 53, hopes to capitalize on her political outsider status and self-financed deep pockets in a year when the still-lagging U.S. economy has left Democrats and incumbents vulnerable.
Brown, a brainy, maverick political veteran and former California governor whose father also served in that role, enjoys strong name recognition and is supported by the state’s public employee unions, which wield unmatched political influence.
Whoever is the next governor will inherit a state burdened by double-digit unemployment, a budget tens of billions of dollars in the red and a profoundly unpopular, polarized legislature.
And this year Latinos, who make up a third of Californians and 17 percent of the electorate, may be especially leery of Republicans because of a controversial law aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration in neighboring Arizona that has reignited an often bitter national debate over the issue.
Arizona’s law, signed by Republican Governor Jan Brewer in April, requires police to investigate the immigration status of suspects they stop for other offenses if there is a “reasonable suspicion” that they are in the United States illegally.
Whitman also must make up ground from a divisive primary battle over which Republican candidate would do the best job of stopping illegal immigration.
Her strategy has been to focus on the economy and distance herself from hardline measures like the Arizona law and a 1994 California ballot proposition barring illegal aliens from using state services, such as healthcare and schools, that was backed by Republicans but overturned in court.
The first ads ran on Spanish-language stations during a World Cup soccer match between Mexico and France and centered on jobs and the economy, which Whitman sees as the No. 1 issue for voters, including Latinos.
Spanish-language billboards said she opposes both the Arizona law and Proposition 187.
“Part of our strategy has been making sure we got out early and communicated our message to this constituency as early as possible, before the Jerry Brown campaign tried to define us,” Whitman campaign spokesman Hector Barajas told Reuters.
Barajas said Whitman has also gone into Latino communities for one-on-one meetings with voters, stressing that she was a working mom like many of them.
“When Election Day comes, if we were to look back, I think people are going to say ‘She didn’t give up on any constituency,’” he said.
Some Democrats have worried publicly that Brown, already at a fund-raising disadvantage to Whitman, has made a slow start to the campaign and taken the Latino vote for granted.
He responded to Whitman’s ad blitz with a press conference in Los Angeles flanked by more than a dozen statewide Latino lawmakers and officials, who reminded voters that Brown marched with labor rights activist Cesar Chavez in the 1970s and gave farm workers the right to organize during the first of his two terms as governor.
But missing from the event was Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, considered the country’s best-known Latino politician, whose office is just down the freeway. Both Brown and Villaraigosa’s offices described the mayor’s absence as a scheduling conflict.
Brown, 72, has dismissed criticism of his campaign’s slow start, saying that it was still early in a race that wouldn’t be decided until November and that Latinos would not be misled by Whitman’s Spanish-language ads.
“Listen, you can put up your billboard in Spanish and you can buy stuff on Spanish television but the people aren’t fooled, the people know the truth,” he said.
Editing by Eric Walsh