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  • Manny Crisostomo /

    State Sen. Abel Maldonado, R-Santa Maria, left, shares a light moment with Sen. Lou Correa, D-Anaheim, before his confirmation hearing at the Capitol Monday. The California Senate voted 25-7 to approve Maldonado as California's lieutenant governor . The 42-year-old Maldonado, who was nominated by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, is expected to be sworn in this week to replace Democrat John Garamendi. April 26, 2010

  • Manny Crisostomo /

    State Sen. Abel Maldonado, R-Santa Maria, answers media questions after his successful confirmation as California's lieutenant governor at the Capitol Monday. The California Senate voted 25-7 to approve Maldonado. The 42-year-old Maldonado, who was nominated by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, is expected to sworn in this week to replace Democrat John Garamendi. April 26, 2010

  • Hector Amezcua /

    Attorney General Kamala Harris shares a laugh with former Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado during Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom's Inaugural Celebration on the Senate chambers on Monday, January 10, 2011.


    Abel Maldonado, R-Santa Maria, shares a smile with his wife Laura, and his father Abel Maldonado, Sr. after he was sworn in as Lieutenant Governor by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Tuesday, April 27, 2010.


    Lieutenant Governor Abel Maldonado, R-Santa Maria, walks out of his new office after he was is sworn in by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on Tuesday, April 27, 2010.

  • Hector Amezcua /

    Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, sits with Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado at Gridiron event were he was roasted at the Sacramento Convention Center on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2010.

  • Hector Amezcua /

    Ron Nehring, Chairman of the California Republican Party gives Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado a cake in honor of his birthday at the Hyatt in San Diego on Saturday, August 21, 2010 during the CRP Convention.

  • Hector Amezcua /

    Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado enters the California Republican Party dinner in San Diego on Friday, August 20, 2010 with his daughter Erika after she was accidentaly identified as the Lt. Governor's wife.

  • Hector Amezcua /

    Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado signs a guest book for Senator Dave Cox's family after a memorial for the senator at the Cathedral of teh Blessed Sacrament on Thursday, August 5, 2010/

  • Hector Amezcua /

    Lieutenant Governor Abel Maldonado, speaks at his Inaugural Address on Tuesday, May 4, 2010 at the East steps of the Capitol in Sacramento.

Maldonado's long-shot bid for California governor may help GOP -- even if he loses

Published: Friday, May. 3, 2013 - 5:01 pm
Last Modified: Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014 - 12:06 pm

Since announcing several weeks ago that he is considering running for governor, Abel Maldonado has raised a tiny sum of money, established a Facebook page and started mocking incumbent Gov. Jerry Brown online.

He has also become a prolific contributor to Twitter, where his profile - "I am running for governor" - suggests he has left consideration behind.

He has certain challenges to overcome: After being appointed lieutenant governor by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2010, the former state lawmaker and farmer from Santa Maria has failed in his last two campaigns - first to retain his lieutenant governorship and then for a seat in Congress.

Maldonado's support for temporary tax increases while in the Legislature alienated conservative members of his party, and he is starting his gubernatorial campaign from a fundraising disadvantage.

Still, for many Republicans who have watched their party's registration fall below 30 percent and who believe their chances of unseating Brown are dim, the prospect of fielding a moderate Latino candidate for governor - even one who is likely to lose - is not without appeal. The GOP has failed for years to connect with California's growing number of Latino and independent voters, and Maldonado or a candidate like him could represent an opportunity.

Maldonado "could say all the right things," said Rob Stutzman, a GOP strategist in Sacramento. "He could be progressive on immigration ... do a lot of good for the party."

It is still more than a year before the primary election, and other Republicans will almost certainly enter the race. Among potential candidates are former U.S. Treasury Department official Neel Kashkari and Orange County Supervisor John Moorlach.

Before Maldonado expressed interest, however, the most recognizable Republican hopeful was Tim Donnelly, an assemblyman best known outside his district for his anti-immigration positions and for carrying a loaded handgun into an airport.

Matt Rexroad, a Republican political consultant and Yolo County supervisor, said that with Donnelly the party "would end up in a race in the wrong direction."

Tony Quinn, a political analyst and former Republican legislative aide, cited "a consensus" among GOP donors and elected officials "that they cannot just troop out another angry white male."

To many moderate Republicans, therefore, Maldonado is a measure of relief.

"Running an Abel Maldonado is a whole lot better than having a Central Valley Republican who's going to be sort of 'guns, God and immigration' - Donnelly or whoever else could emerge," said Thad Kousser, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego. "Abel Maldonado, Tim Donnelly - both are going to lose to Jerry Brown. But Maldonado's going to leave the party in a better place."

Maldonado, 45, is unlikely to engage in the kind of anti-immigration rhetoric that defined the 2010 gubernatorial primary. Rather, at a Republican gathering this spring he offered support for the many Latinos he said "want people to fight for them to allow their grandpa and their grandma to have the opportunity to become a legal resident."

Donnelly has said he has not yet decided if he will run. Asher Burke, a Donnelly adviser, said the Twin Peaks Republican is aware of a desire by elements of the party to put up a candidate who might "appeal to the center potentially, but (Donnelly) doesn't think the more conservative voices of the party should be shut out of the conversation."

Said Burke: "He wants to be part of the conversation. He wants to be part of the dialogue."

Brown, governor previously from 1975 to 1983, has not said whether he will seek a fourth term, but his political adviser, Steve Glazer, expects him to run. Brown has raised more than $7 million for the effort.

The governor's public approval ratings are only middling, but he is a problematic opponent for many would-be challengers. He has access not only to labor unions that traditionally fund Democratic candidates, but to business interests that he has courted heavily while in office.

"The other side really could screw up, could give us an opportunity, but do I see that on the horizon anytime soon? No," Duf Sundheim, former chairman of the California Republican Party, said during a panel discussion in Sacramento last week.

Asked if the party should put forward a candidate for governor in 2014, Sundheim said, "A lot of things could happen between now and then, so yes, you put somebody up for governor. I think you put somebody up that represents your vision of tomorrow, that reflects the diversity of the state of California, that makes the arguments in a constructive and positive manner ... for you to fight another day."

As of Thursday, Maldonado had recorded five large campaign donations totaling less than $100,000, including $5,000 from former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, a moderate who was defeated in the 2002 gubernatorial primary by a more conservative businessman, Bill Simon.

Simon went on to lose in the general election that year to the incumbent governor, Gray Davis, but the race was closer than many observers initially expected.

"There's a long time between now and next year," Simon said. "It's been said that a week is a lifetime in politics, and a lot can happen."

Moorlach, the Orange County supervisor, is encouraged by that line of thinking. He is aware, however, of how deep blue California is outside his county.

"All the consultants I've talked to are like, 'Hey, John, we really like you, don't do this,' " Moorlach said. "But someone has to carry, maybe, the Republican banner of good, you know, fiscal stewardship."

Maldonado's chief strategist, John Weaver, said a "strong candidacy that's able to break into new demographic categories" would be good for the party, but he said Maldonado will not run to lose.

"We think we can win," he said.

The primary election next year will be the first gubernatorial contest held under California's new top-two primary system, in which the top two vote-getters in June will advance to a November runoff regardless of party.

No prominent Democrat has said he or she will challenge Brown, and the second-place finisher in June is expected to be a Republican.

It was Maldonado who brokered the legislative agreement in 2009 that put the top-two primary on the ballot, a concession he demanded in return for his vote for temporary tax increases.

Many conservatives have not yet forgiven him.

John W. Briscoe, the newly elected president of the conservative California Republican Assembly, said for the GOP to turn away from conservative candidates would only erode the party's identity, resulting in a party of "Democrats lite."

Jon Fleischman, a conservative blogger and former state Republican Party executive director, said Maldonado "would be a disaster."

"We'd be putting our worst foot forward as some pseudo-outreach," Fleischman said. "It's like saying, 'Well, a warm body with a heartbeat is better than nothing at all.' "

Call David Siders, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1215. Follow him on Twitter @davidsiders.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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