SAN DIEGO — Even before Meg Whitman stepped up to address the Republican state convention here, leaders of the party’s grassroots right wing sharply criticized her stands on immigration and the environment, warning that many conservative voters might sit out the election if she takes their support for granted.
Top officials of the California Republican Assembly and Young Republican Federation of California told reporters covering the convention at San Diego’s Manchester Grand Hyatt that the GOP nominee for governor is making both an ideological error and a serious strategic mistake by moderating her earlier positions on illegal immigration, California’s climate change law and taxes, among other issues.
“There’s almost nothing left of the primary Meg,” said former CRA and GOP chairman Mike Schroeder. “It’s time for the Republican Party to be officially concerned about whether or not Republicans are going to turn out for this ticket . . . if there’s no enthusiasm a lot of people don’t turn out at all.”
“Republicans are unified in their support for Meg Whitman both here at the convention and across the state,” replied Brian Seitchik, spokeman for the GOP. Immigration and other issues will not fragment the party, he said. “The party is unified behind Meg because she has a plan to create jobs and that’s going to be the central issue in November.”
Despite assurances from Whitman loyalists in the party apparatus, the tone and substance of the comments by the conservative leaders showed that her brazen shift to the political center after portraying herself as a movement conservative in the primary is deeply upsetting some of the most loyal Republican voters.
Calbuzz asked this question: Do you think she is taking the conservative wing of the Republican Party for granted?
“Yes,” said Schroeder. “I think she assumes that people will look and say, ‘Well, the alternative is Jerry Brown.’ But that’s not true. The alternative to Jerry Brown is not voting at all, or voting for the Libertarian or somebody else. And that’s what a lot of the conversation is becoming.”
Because a state party convention is a kind of ideological hothouse, it is not clear whether the comments from the right-wing leaders represent an actual threat to Whitman’s chances in the general election against Democrat Jerry Brown, or more a intramural scuffle for the hearts and minds of the activists who populate these conventions. The CRA endorsed Steve Poizner, eMeg’s rival, as the preferred conservative in the GOP primary.
It didn’t help relations between the two sides, however, that the CRA was denied access to the official GOP press room and was forced to hold forth in a lobby.
The CRA is sponsoring a resolution, which they are trying to bring before the convention, that would put the party squarely on record in favor of both California’s Proposition 187 and the controversial Arizona law aimed at illegal immigrants. Whitman has said she would have opposed 187, if she was living in the state in 1994. And she has said that while the Arizona law is OK for Arizona, it’s impractical in California.
“That’s nonsense,” said Celeste Greig, president of the CRA. Greig said she is not concerned that pushing Whitman to the right on the issue could backfire on her in the general election. “We are trying to help her. We want her to win. We want her to be successful. But we also want her to come aboard with the issues that we care about. We want her to stand strong on what she campaigned for in the primary election.”
As a political matter, however, the flap between Whitman and the right-wing overshadowed what Team Whitman had hoped would be the message of the day. Earlier in the day, her campaign produced an elaborately staged media event at a solar company in San Diego that was intended to showcase her alleged plan for dealing with California’s 12.5% unemployment; it was no accident that her convention speech was scheduled for late Friday evening, when it might be too late to get on TV news, and would get relatively short shrift in the poorly-read Saturday papers.
Even before the CRA news conference, eMeg managed to step on her own story in advance, when she told reporters at a press gaggle that, if elected governor, she would support a legal appeal by supporters of the anti-gay marriage Proposition 8, a position Gov. Schwarzenegger has refused to take.
But it’s Whitman’s waffling stance on illegal immigration (along with her refusal to endorse Prop. 23, overturning California’s climate-change law) that has her party’s right wing worried.
Adam Abrahms, president of the GOP youth federation said he’ll vote for Whitman but she’s not sure he can bring masses of cohorts along. “It’s a matter of enthusiasm. And I want all of our candidates to go out there and say the things and do the things that are going to help energize our base . . . In 2008 I had a very difficult time motivating people to do something with Mr. McCain. There was a big problem. They didn’t trust him,” he said.
Of course, McCain was Whitman’s candidate. After her first choice — Mitt Romney — fell by the wayside.