The Conversation: GOP inflicts its own wounds

Published: Sunday, Mar. 18, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1E
Last Modified: Sunday, Mar. 18, 2012 - 6:23 pm

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That grinding noise you hear is the sound of Republicans gnawing on one another.

In national politics, the remaining Republican presidential candidates appear to be intent on chewing each other down to the bone, or at least through California's June 5 primary. In California, fights have broken out from Roseville to San Diego, and points in between.

It comes as GOP registration in California is mired at 31 percent, fundraising is anemic, and party loyalists bicker over immigration and social issues, which have nothing to do with helping put people back to work. Too often, party loyalists seem to prefer ideological purity to winning elections or, heaven forbid, governing.

One of the California GOP's most dramatic failures was its inability to recruit a serious Republican to attempt to unseat U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein this November. Republicans figure they had no prayer of winning.

"We have to make the foundational components of the party stronger if we want to be competitive long-term," California Republican Party Chairman Tom Del Beccaro said, acknowledging that the GOP has problems, a first step toward recovery.

Republican consultants note that the GOP doesn't have a monopoly on stupid. Democrats are perfectly able to form a circle and blast away. But Democrats have a greater margin for error given that they control every aspect of state government, and the party entered 2012 sitting on $9.3 million compared to the GOP's $432,000.

The GOP has made some smart moves, including coaxing savvy former Assemblyman George Plescia into running for a state Senate seat in San Diego County. Then again, this is the same guy who became Assembly Republican leader, and quickly became one of many former Assembly leaders purged for daring to compromise with Democrats.

On the flip side, the San Diego County Republican Party endorsed San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio for mayor, as did the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, an organization integral to the Republican apparatus. DeMaio has made a name for himself by attacking public employee unions and pushing for pension reform, reasonable issues for a Republican.

But in San Diego, there are 76,000 more Democrats than Republicans. The 167,000 voters who decline to state a party preference nearly equals the 176,000 Republican voters. That means a moderate can win, not a conservative.

In its wisdom, or lack thereof, the party in San Diego County bypassed Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, a Marine veteran of Iraq and one of the few California Republicans who, in time, might have a chance of winning statewide office.

Fletcher's endorsements include another former San Diego mayor who achieved success, Pete Wilson, the former governor and U.S. senator. Fletcher's wife, Mindy Fletcher, was press secretary for the 2000 Bush-Cheney presidential campaign, and one of George W. Bush's trusted advisers.

Fletcher breached party orthodoxy last year by voting for legislation that would have raised about $1 billion in taxes on out-of-state companies. Biotech companies in the San Diego area backed it. But Michigan-based General Motors and Altria, the world's largest cigarette maker, led the lobby effort to kill it.

In legislative races, the California Republican Party has little choice but to endorse incumbents. That includes pistol-packing Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks, even though he's one of the Democrats' best arguments for Latinos not to vote Republican.

Donnelly, a Minuteman leader, has pushed anti-illegal immigration measures, including a failed referendum to repeal California's version of the DREAM Act, and a bill that sought to mimic Arizona's controversial anti-immigrant law.

While it endorsed Donnelly, the GOP passed over the most prominent Republican Latino in California, Abel Maldonado, the former assemblyman, state senator and lieutenant governor, who hopes to unseat Democratic Rep. Lois Capps in a congressional seat that includes Santa Barbara.

The Republican National Committee placed Maldonado on a national stage by choosing him twice to speak at national conventions. But in California he failed multiple litmus tests by supporting a tax during his time in the Legislature, and authoring the state's new open primary system, something the GOP opposed, though voters embrace it.

Party delegates who decide endorsements generally are much further to the right than voters, as evidenced by a recent poll by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.

The California GOP is, for example, anti-abortion. PPIC's poll showed that by a majority of 68 percent to 27 percent, self-identified Republicans want government to butt out of decisions regarding abortions.

The California Republican Party opposes same-sex marriage. Republican voters oppose it, too. But since 2008 when Californians approved Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriage, support for the concept has grown 11 percentage points among Republican voters.

All this may sound bleak for the GOP and good for Democrats. But as bad as it seems, Republicans stand a chance of picking up a seat or two in the Assembly, and it's far from certain that Democrats will gain the two seats in the Senate needed to attain two-thirds majority.

Republican Chairman Del Beccaro intends to develop a unifying theme on which all 100 candidates for the Assembly and Senate can run in 2012. Issues might include government pensions, high taxes and regulation, all intended to convince voters that Republicans would be better at restoring jobs. Here we are in mid-March, and there is no plan. Del Beccaro hopes to produce one by August.

Meanwhile, Republicans fight for scraps. In the Republican-dominated district that includes Roseville and Folsom, Andy Pugno, the lawyer who wrote Proposition 8, is challenging Assemblywoman Beth Gaines, the conservative Roseville wife of Sen. Ted Gaines. Pugno, who was a legislative aide for several years, will argue that merely being conservative is not sufficient.

"For Republicans who are in the minority, it takes extra effort and talent to be effective in other ways," Pugno said. "That is sorely needed for conservatives to make progress."

Progress is subjective. If Pugno wins, he'd be a reminder to voters about his signature social issue, even if he never raises it in debate or legislation. The issue has nothing to do with putting food on anyone's table, and it won't help the GOP win a statewide seat. But perhaps Republicans are accustomed to losing and content to pick at one another's bones.

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Read more articles by Dan Morain, Senior editor

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