SACRAMENTO, California — Thirty years ago, then-California Gov. Pete Wilson set off a political earthquake over immigration.
The Republican governor’s critics over the years say the 1994 campaign — marked by his support of Proposition 187 that sought to deny public services to immigrants in the country illegally — went beyond trying to get the federal government to act on a crisis that was costing California millions.
Democrats charged him with racism and stoking anti-immigrant sentiment. Members of his own party feared he was alienating the state’s fast-growing Latino electorate and sending the California GOP down a path to irrelevance. Now, a Republican running to be the new face of that GOP in Sacramento is coming to Wilson’s defense — and appropriating his divisive message.
On Monday, as the immigration debate consumes Washington, San Diego-area state Assembly candidate Carl DeMaio will start airing a 30-second TV ad titled “Gov. Pete Wilson Was Right.” The homage to Wilson — shared first with POLITICO — represents a stunning break from the party’s softer immigration messaging since Wilson left office.
“The California Republican political establishment has been dead wrong for 30 years and they are guilty of political malpractice on this issue,” DeMaio told POLITICO.
Even in California, where Republicans need to navigate the immigration issue more carefully than their brethren in much of the country, he’s taking a sledgehammer to years of the GOP in Sacramento carefully negotiating its position.
And Proposition 187 was one of those moments where California was the canary in the coal mine for how Republicans would pivot on immigration nationwide.
DeMaio’s new TV spot begins with a nine-second clip from an ad cut by the former governor in 1994. Wilson, following images of a border crossing in San Diego, appears on screen and says that “for Californians who work hard, pay taxes and obey the laws, I’m suing to force the federal government to control the border.” (There’s a far more recognizable ad from Wilson that came to represent the era where the narrator says “They keep coming.” DeMaio clipped a different one).
It should be noted that Wilson, who also served in the U.S. Senate and was a popular mayor of San Diego, has long denied scapegoating immigrants and has pushed back hard on accusations of racism.
DeMaio does more than credit Wilson for his stances back then. He blames both Democrats and Republicans for the problems at the southern border that are raging today. And he argues that the California GOP’s decision to abandon its tough stance on immigration has only allowed those problems to grow worse while doing nothing to help Republicans win elections. In other words, once they started losing badly, they internalized the wrong reasons for their losing and should have taken the hard-line that’s common with Republicans in Texas and Florida.
After Wilson vanishes from the screen in the DeMaio ad, it’s the kind of political content that could run in the reddest parts of the country (though it doesn’t mention former President Donald Trump like many of those other ads do). DeMaio pledges to secure the border, over clips of immigrants walking and one of him talking on Fox News about the scourge of sanctuary cities. DeMaio also promises to work on enacting voter-identification laws.
The longtime talk-radio host who served on the San Diego City Council and lost races for mayor and Congress, said he wants to go to Sacramento to shake up the status quo. The plan he’s unveiling at a news conference on Tuesday won’t win support from Democratic leaders like Gov. Gavin Newsom, but it reinforces DeMaio’s argument that Republicans need to lean in on the issue.
DeMaio wants to deploy far more California National Guard to the southern border; rescind sanctuary city policies and suspend social spending programs for unauthorized immigrants like health care and legal defense — calling them “goodies” that act as a magnet for people to come. He would also put under review other laws like drivers licenses for undocumented people in the U.S.
Not only does DeMaio not believe his plans would cause more Latinos to drift from Republicans, he also thinks it would help the GOP.
“I believe that Latinos are with us on immigration and Democrats have been bamboozled by the liberal media” to shift further to the left, he said.
But DeMaio was anticipating harsh reaction.
Mike Madrid, a Republican consultant who has spent much of his career working on issues around Latino voters, said DeMaio should focus where polling says Latino voters are focused.
“This is the California version of saying ‘The South shall rise again,’” Madrid said.
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