Presidential Campaigns, California Style

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Getty/Darren McCollester

As Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has ramped up his rhetoric on the topic of illegal immigration in the 2012 race for the White House, you can forgive California political watchers if they feel a sense of déjà vu.

Not just on the issue itself: we actually heard almost the exact same words and phrases in the 2010 race for governor.

Perhaps that's because Romney has a campaign team bearing battle scars earned here in California. And he's not alone among the GOP contenders in that regard.

"I believe that we should turn off the magnets that bring people here illegally," said Romney in a newspaper interview last week. He's made essentially the same comment at several campaign appearances and debates over the last few weeks.

The "magnets" idea is one that we heard a lot from GOP gubernatorial candidate Steve Poizner in 2010.

"Turning those magnets off is the solution. It's important for our economic security. It's important for our national security," said Poizner in an event near Palm Springs in May 2010. The candidate, who later lost handily in the GOP primary to Meg Whitman, made the comment about illegal immigration "magnets" literally dozens of times in the race.

Coincidence? Doubtful, as the Romney for President campaign features a number of top ex-Poizner advisers. That includes top strategist Stewart Stevens; policy director Lanhee Chen; and economic advisor Danita Ng.

Romney's campaign has been hitting one candidate in particular hard on the issue of illegal immigration: Texas Governor Rick Perry, even going so far as to link Perry to the president of Mexico. Here again, a flashback to Poizner v. Whitman 2010. "Do you want a governor who has the same position on illegal immigration as the President of Mexico?" asked a Poizner TV ad bashing Whitman a few weeks before the June 2010 primary.

Of course, there's a small bit of political irony in the Romney campaign's mirrored rhetoric of Steve Poizner: Romney's closest California confidante is... yes... Meg Whitman. Even as she recently took on the job of CEO at Hewlett-Packard, Whitman continues to maintain a close tie to the Romney presidential effort.

The former Massachusetts governor has also tapped Todd Cranney as deputy political director, a Whitman 2010 adviser, and Andrea Saul as a spokesperson, after her work for Carly Fiorina's failed 2010 bid to unseat U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer.

And yes, Romney himself can be counted in the campaign's California connections: he owns an oceanfront home in La Jolla.

Meantime, one of Romney's competitors for the Republican nomination -- former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman -- also has a pretty strong California political connection. Matt David, who served as the third of three communications directors for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, is Huntsman's campaign manager. David took the top job in July, after running Huntsman's communications shop. The campaign has also used top GOP media consultant Fred Davis to help get out its message, and California politicos are still talking about Davis' work for senatorial candidate Carly Fiorina: the infamous 'demon sheep' TV ad.

And lest we forget, the candidate himself is a Californian; Jon Huntsman was born in Palo Alto on March 26, 1960.

Digging beyond the 2010 election cycle in California, you can also find a Golden State connection for the campaign of Rick Perry. His national press secretary, Mark Miner, was communications director for GOP gubernatorial nominee Bill Simon in 2002.

The less-than-six-degrees of separation of California and national GOP politics stands, of course, in contrast to the Golden State's relatively low importance in the actual nominating process. The state's June primary will only play a role in the outcome if the race is much closer than most observers now think it will be -- though Democrats certainly learned a thing or two about close nomination battles in 2008.

California does, however, play a big role in campaign fundraising. Candidates love to fly in and withdraw cash from the 'California ATM' and the state's wealthy donors. We'll have a better sense of those donations later this week, when third quarter federal campaign reports are released. But existing records show that Mitt Romney is tops among GOP challengers, with more than $2.3 million from California (those records also fail to capture the late entry of Perry into the race, and the Texas candidate has been jetting west lots of time in recent weeks to ask for cash).

In the meantime, we'll continue to enjoy talk of "magnets" and other catch-phrases that seem to have been tested out here first. California Republicans may be the state's minority party, but they're playing a big role in the quest to win back the White House less than 13 months from now.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new California Politics & Government Desk. He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades, serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and most recently as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. In 2014, he was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.
  • Reilleyfam

    Everyone of these people has a terrific track record of losing. They actually hired the “demon sheep” guy?? Wow, if I’d know that being a complete loser with no sense of what it’s like to be a regular voter or what those voters want was so in demand I’d have gone in to campaigning.

  • jskdn

    As if concept of magnets to illegal immigration had no legitimacy. But then again to the pro-illegal immigration elite media, nothing but the promotion of their agenda has any legitimacy. To those who actually are honest about it, removing the incentives to being it the country is the key to controlling illegal immigration. A quarter century next month after mass amnesty was given in exchange for making it illegal to employ illegal immigrants, which has long been recognized as the main magnet, millions of illegal immigrants work on the books and the government does almost nothing to stop them.