Two years ago, Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner looked a good bet to be the GOP standard bearer for governor – a sensible fellow, the only Republican except Gov. Schwarzenegger holding statewide office, and a successful businessman in a time of economic distress. Today, he is 49 points behind his GOP rival in the latest Field Poll and his supporters are running for the hills.

Facing political collapse, he has resorted to the historic tactic of a political scoundrel, race baiting, in this case making immigrant bashing the central theme of his faltering campaign. He told the state GOP convention he would stop all public benefits to illegal immigrants (which he can’t do thanks to court rulings), and stop any more from crossing the Mexican border, “If I have to, I’ll send the National Guard to the border. If that doesn’t work, I’ll send the California Highway patrol to the border. And if that doesn’t work, I’ll send the California Republican Party to the border.” He did not say whether Republicans would be allowed to bring along their illegal nannies and gardeners.

Immigrant bashing has a long history in American politics from the anti-Irish “Know Nothings” of the 1850 through various periods of anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish discrimination. California has its own sordid history of immigrant hating, beginning with the Chinese exclusion acts of the late 19th century that deprived Chinese of their property and ghettoized them into Chinatowns, to the various “Jap Laws” that led to incarceration of Japanese-Americans in World War II.

Poizner’s tactics fit right in. His inexperienced political team found out that older white voters – about all that’s left of the California Republican Party – resent the cultural changes that immigration has brought to California. This is not unlike the political backlash that hit the south in the civil rights era, and in some ways Poizner sounds like he is running for governor of Alabama in those years.

But California in 2010 is not Alabama in 1958. For one thing, immigration ranks low on the GOP issue totem pole, well behind taxes, bad schools, poor roads and the mad hatter state budget mess. Immigration into California has slowed in the past decade because of the poor economy, making immigrants less of a target. And California voters don’t believe the politicians will do anything about it anyway.

But Poizner has accomplished one thing; he’s made himself unelectable in November, and further damaged his own party. Latino voters will account for about 15 percent of the fall electorate, Asians and blacks another six or seven percent each. This means that Poizner, were he the GOP nominee, would start out with 28 or so percent of the electorate solidly against him.

That might not matter if he could carry the white vote by 60 percent plus – the obvious target of his immigrant bashing – but white voters are the most liberal voters in California. Proposition 8 would have failed had only whites voted in 2008; minorities put it over the top. The most liberal legislators in California are whites representing left wing enclaves like Santa Monica, Berkeley and of course San Francisco.

Poizner would not only drag the entire GOP statewide slate down to defeat, but
would imperil Republican numbers in the legislature. One of the most annoying noises in Sacramento these days is the whining of the California business community that the liberal legislature gives them no respect. Well, maybe they should ask themselves how they got into this situation. Go back to 1994, and look at the loss one after another of safe Republican seats. What do they have in common – growth of middle class Asian and Latino populations as these voters have moved to the suburbs and transformed formerly Republican areas into Democratic ones. That occurred in tandem with the last round of GOP immigrant bashing, 1994’s Proposition 187.

Republicans today hold barely one third in each house, and that one third is in danger this year. Democrats should pick up the Senate seat GOP Sen. Jeff Denham is vacating, and if they are smart enough to confirm Sen. Abel Maldonado as lieutenant governor, they can win his seat in November special election. That gives the Democrats two thirds in the State Senate. Democrats only need a three seat gain to obtain two thirds in the Assembly, and one seat is already probably theirs as GOP Assemblyman Danny Gilmore is not running for re-election. Republicans are forced to vacate several GOP Assembly districts that Obama carried in 2008, and Democrats could easily win a handful of these.

But for this to happen, Democrats must engender a huge turnout of angry Latinos and Asians, as happened when Republicans were slaughtered in the 1998 election. Poizner’s immigrant bashing is playing right into their hands. Yet the business community has said nothing to condemn this suicidal political strategy. Next year we could hear even higher decibels of whining as the California legislature becomes a carbon copy of Nancy Pelosi’s congress, but at least this time they had a warning.

Poizner’s done; it’s time to stick a fork in him, and business and responsible Republicans ought to lead the way.