ANAHEIM -- As California Republicans gather this weekend for their biannual convention, Abel Maldonado has ensconced himself at the party hotel, telling anyone who will listen – reporters, party activists, busboys – that he can beat Gov. Jerry Brown next year.
It is a difficult case to make. The former lieutenant governor is coming off two electoral losses. He finished the first half of the year in debt, and he and his original team of strategists split.
But in an effort to corral support from uncertain members of his own party, Maldonado announced a new group of advisers ahead of the convention and brought them here to work the crowd.
He said in an interview, “My campaign has never been in better shape than it is today.”
Brown has not yet said if he will seek re-election, but the Democratic governor has raised more than $10million for the effort and is expected to run. Even among Republicans, he is widely considered likely to win.
Maldonado, a former state lawmaker and farmer from Santa Maria, described his campaign as an “uphill battle.”
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that when you run against an incumbent governor who’s been elected and in office, the longest-serving governor in the history of California ... it’s going to be an uphill battle.”
Maldonado has lost his last two campaigns, most recently for a seat in Congress and before that to retain the lieutenant governorship to which he was appointed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2010.
In the current campaign, Maldonado’s fundraising effort has been anemic. He acknowledged he “could be doing better” but said “it’s tough to raise money right now.”
He said, “We’re going to have a campaign that reflects the resources that we have,” and that he took a measure of pride in the low-dollar nature of the affair.
Maldonado said he asked a busboy at a restaurant here to donate $1, and the busboy did.
“That’s retail, hardcore politics,” Maldonado said.
At the convention, this brand of politics has included pouring wine for visitors in his hotel suite and mingling with delegates at a cigar social Friday night.
His advisers distributed new campaign stickers and business cards.
“This is a different campaign,” Brandon Gesicki, a friend of Maldonado, told a delegate in a hotel lobby. “You’ll be impressed.”
To those who are skeptical of Maldonado’s chances, he notes some better-funded candidates, such as Republican Meg Whitman, have been defeated despite their resources, and he alluded to President Barack Obama’s 2008 election to suggest there is still time to gain momentum.
“Why don’t you ask Hillary Clinton what she thinks about somebody catching fire and running a campaign that nobody discovered six or eight years ago,” he said.
Maldonado’s original chief strategist, media strategist and campaign manager each departed from Maldonado’s campaign this summer. Whether they left at their choice or were asked to go is a matter of dispute.
Ron Nehring, a former California Republican Party chairman, is now Maldonado’s senior adviser. Other advisers include Rick Tyler, former press secretary for Newt Gingrich, pollster Ed Goeas and political director Jimmy Camp. Maldonado and his advisers put a “campaign briefing” on for about 130 delegates Saturday.
“It’s all about grass-roots,” Maldonado told the crowd.
Afterward, Carl Burton, a delegate from Sacramento, told a woman in the audience behind him, “I think he’s our best chance to win.”
Maldonado has faced criticism from conservative members of the party over his support for temporary tax increases while in the Legislature, and his candidacy has been resisted by some Republicans who hope that if the party does not embrace him an alternative candidate may emerge.
Mike Spence, a conservative activist, compared Maldonado to Nathan Fletcher, the former assemblyman who changed his party registration from Republican to independent to Democrat.
“Nathan Fletcher’s more honorable,” Spence said. “At least he switched parties.”
Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, who is also campaigning for governor, posted signs at the convention promoting him as a “Patriot Not Politician.”
Donnelly, a Republican from Twin Peaks who is notorious outside his district for his anti-immigration positions and for carrying a loaded handgun into an airport, took to a bullhorn at a news conference earlier Saturday outside the convention hotel.
He said of Maldonado, “I don’t know why anybody’s talking about him. I think Jerry Brown is the candidate to beat.”
Call David Siders, Bee Capitol Bureau, at (916)321-1215. Follow him on Twitter @davidsiders.