Can California GOP Get Its Mojo Back?

NOV. 8, 2010


The Nov. 2 election was almost a total wipe-out for California Republicans. They even lost the 28th state Senate District to incumbent Jenny Oropeza, who died two weeks earlier.

At the state level, they were smashed in every race except attorney general. Republican Steve Cooley barely leads as counting goes on. Yet he should have easily beaten opponent Kamala Harris, the far-left Democratic district attorney from San Francisco who opposes the popular death penalty.

Is there any hope for this party regaining its running legs? Or should it be led to the elephant graveyard like in one of those old Tarzan movies?

“They have nowhere to go but up,” Jack Pitney told me; he’s Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College and author of “The Art of Political Warfare” and other books. “That’s the optimistic way of looking at it. The party is in about as tough a shape as you can imagine.”

Voters passed Proposition 25, which dropped from two-thirds to a majority the threshold for passing a state budget. “That means they’re cut out of the budget process,” Pitney added. “They don’t have any significant leverage in the Legislature. Interest groups don’t have any reason to give them the time of day.”

He said that there are two kinds of contributions to political campaigns: Access money and belief money. Access money is to buy influence; Republicans won’t be getting much of that. Belief money is because the politician advances something the donor believes in. “Republicans now will have to motivate people with their beliefs. They will have to make arguments to persuade people to move away from the Democrats.”

Hasta la vista, Arnold

One of the Republicans’ few pieces of good news, Pitney said, is that fellow Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger soon will be leaving the governor’s throne. “Schwarzenegger has essentially divorced the Republican Party,” Pitney added. “It’s one of those divorces that’s OK with the wronged party,” meaning almost every other Republican.”

Anther sign of hope is the defeat of Proposition 27, which would have canceled the 2008 redistricting reform voters passed. After redistricting next year eliminates the severe gerrymandering imposed in 2001, in 2012 Republicans might have a chance to pick up a few more seats in the Legislature, “although it won’t allow them to capture a majority” in either the Assembly or the state Senate, Pitney figured. “Then they could start rebuilding” the party and its power in the state Capitol.

Billionaire losers

California Republicans haven’t done well with the mega-millionaire and billionaire business candidates they have put up for statewide office. Michael Huffington lost a race for U.S. Senate in 1994. Bill Simon lost the governor’s race in 2002 to Democrat Gray Davis. Both Steve Poizner and Meg Whitman lost in 2010 for the governor’s office. And Carly Fiorina lost her bid for a U.S. Senate seat against Barbara Boxer.

Of course, the exception is Arnold Schwarzenegger, who won in 2003 and 2006. But his first race was the freakish recall. And in 2006, his re-election came in the peak year of the real-estate boom, with the state flush with boom tax money a year before everything went bust.

Moreover, voters didn’t actually vote for Arnold Schwarzenegger, but for the Terminator, Conan the Barbarian, John Matrix, Mark Kaminsky, Dutch, Ben Richards,  Capt. Ivan Danko, Jack Slater, Harry Tasker, Mr. Freeze, et al. They’ll all be leaving come January.

“There’s nothing wrong with a billionaire running for office, if the billionaire is a competent politician,” Pitney said. “His policies were another thing, but Nelson Rockefeller, the New York governor and politician, was a gifted natural politician, who knew how to work a crowd. It’s not enough to have millions. You also have to have political skill. That’s something money can’t buy.”

The contrast is unavoidable with Whitman, whose persona everywhere was described as cold and aloof. And that was known before she was nominated.

To find out what Republicans specifically can do to get their mojo back, I asked two Orange County Republican activists, Bob Pace, who is a former Young Republican and in the 1990s was the associate representative of the executive committee of the California Republican Party.

And Allan Bartlett, an elected member of the Orange County Republican Central Committee from the 70th Assembly District.  He’s also a candidate for the first vice chairman position on the party’s executive committee next term.

Arnold’s aftermath

“I don’t think he really hurt the party that badly,” Pace told me. “Most don’t think he is really a Republican. I have called him a ‘European Republican.’ Not to be too cute, but I think that says it all. He is an economic moderate/conservative without any religious upbringing or belief. He seems to be completely secular. Personally, I think  he will be a footnote in history.

“The real damage was done by Pete Wilson,” Republican governor from 1991 to 1998. “He was against Proposition 187,” which cut off funding for illegal immigrants, “until he figured he needed it to gain votes. He wanted to win, flip-flopped on the issue, and rode it to a true pyrrhic victory. The people I knew told me at the time that this was going to ruin the Republican party for years.”

Bartlett disagreed. “Schwarzenegger has done untold damage to the GOP brand,” he told me. “People look at our elected leaders of what the party represents. Unfortunately for Republicans, we chose a person like Arnold Schwarzenegger as a our standard bearer in 2003 and 2006.  Now it is costing us dearly.”

Are more billionaires the answer?

Should the Republican Party keep nominating super-rich candidates from outside politics?

“I’m not prejudiced, John!” Pace said. “I have no problem with rich people wanting to run. It is just that we need someone with a little ‘passion,’ in the classical meaning of the word, to run — even if they are rich.

“What we’ve gotten are some people who got a little lucky in life and think they can just throw their hat in the ring and others will shrink. Reagan didn’t act like that. He was really passionate about America and people. He saw himself as one of the people.”

Bartlett said, “This is a classic case of money not being everything in politics. It’s readily apparent that Meg did not receive much value from all the dollars she paid out to consultants.  California voters have rejected these types of super-rich candidates over the last 20 years: Michael Huffington, Whitman, Carly Fiorina, Steve Westly, Al Checchi, Bill Simon, etc.”

Is there a future for Republicans in California?

After Tuesday’s wipe-out, does the Republican Party have a future in California?

“The California Republican Party leadership should all tender their resignations effective immediately,” Bartlett told me. “If Republicans can’t win any statewide offices in a year where we had a lot of electoral factors in our favor, I’m not optimistic about the party’s future going forward in California.”

“Yes, it does have a future,” Pace told me, being more optimistic. “If the leaders start listening to people who are good at their job, have produced results, and have good ideas. Instead, they remind me of the Scottish House of Lords in ‘Braveheart.’ They worry more about gaining power in the party than they do gaining the power of California. They actually think that, ‘If I can just play enough games to get ahead in the California Republican Party, then afterward I can take over the world.

“They need to take the message to the Hispanic community, to all minority communities. Basically every small businessperson should be a Republican. Every churchgoer pretty much should be a Republican. I am sure the party will say they have taken the message to these communities. But all you have to do is look around and see that isn’t true. ”

John Seiler is a reporter and analyst for His email: [email protected].

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