When bad fortune befalls the Republican Party – Mitt Romney’s ill-fated candidacy; the ill-advised government shutdown – you can count on two aftershocks: GOP moderates and conservatives trading salvos (a phenomenon called the “Republican circular firing squad”) and the Washington Post suggesting the party adopt the “Gotham Theory.”
About that theory: It comes from the movie “Batman Begins” and the character Ra’s al Ghul, head of a group named the League of Shadows that believes the only way to end Gotham’s wicked ways is to raze the metropolis, then rebuild from the rubble (“Gotham’s time has come. Like Constantinople or Rome before it, the city has become a breeding ground for suffering and injustice.”). Applied to politics, it suggests the only way up for the GOP is first to hit rock bottom – i.e., Cruz control.
Keep that doomsday thought in mind as we head toward next year’s gubernatorial contest in California. At present, three Republicans are vying for the right to face Gov. Jerry Brown next November, presuming the Golden State’s longest-serving governor wants to extend his record.
Unfortunately, none of the hopefuls is to be confused with a Caped Crusader. Former Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado already has seen the need to reboot a flagging campaign. One of the complaints from Maldonado’s former advisers: the candidate’s aversion to fundraising. The Green Lantern he’s not.
Neel Kashkari, the former Bush Treasury Department point man on the bank bailout, has logged considerable miles up and down the state introducing himself as a first-time candidate. He’s also not doing much in the way of aggressive media outreach. That makes him the Invisible Man of the field.
The third Republican possibility, Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, is pro-life, pro-gun and pro-Minuteman in terms of border enforcement – a worldview better suited to Pasadena, Texas, not California. As he’s the only true-blue red-state conservative in the race, let’s call him the Crimson Avenger.
So how would the Gotham Theory apply to this batch of challengers? Republican moderates would tell you that Donnelly is the doomsday trigger. Conservatives, on the other hand, would point to the ever-evolving Maldonado as an example of a moderate destined to flat-line.
Here’s the California GOP’s dilemma: both factions can back up their rhetoric with numbers. Dan Lungren made his conservative stance on abortion a prominent part of his gubernatorial run in 1998. He received a little more than 38 percent of the November vote – a level of Republican futility surpassed only by Evelle Younger in 1978 (36.5 percent), ironically during Brown’s first re-election run. In 2010, Meg Whitman steered a far more moderate course (pro-choice on abortion; didn’t oppose AB 32, California’s climate-change law). She received 40.9 percent – not much better than Republican William Knowland’s 40.1 percent share in 1958 versus yet another Brown: Jerry’s father, Pat.
While we’re on the topic of 2014, here’s another set of statistics to keep in your back pocket. In the seven gubernatorial incumbent races of the past half-century (the Reagan landslide of 1966 being the exception to the rule), only once did the challenger top 46.8 percent (Richard Nixon in 1962); five times, the challengers earned 42.2 percent or less.
So why destroy Gotham when this particular battle can’t be won? Better yet, why destroy Gotham when California’s version of that metropolis – Los Angeles – is fast depleting its supply of Republicans?
By Election Day 2012, 4.76 million Californians had registered to vote in Los Angeles County – 2.43 million Democrats versus 1.04 million Republicans. In 2010, the split among nearly 4.45 million registered county voters: 2.29 million Democrats, 1.05 million Republicans. Greater Los Angeles gained 309,000 new voters from 2010 to 2012; 144,000 signed up as Democrats; Republicans actually lost more than 12,000 of the party faithful.
Rather than sacking the city, the GOP challenge in elections ahead is how to regain its competitiveness in the Southland (Arnold Schwarzenegger lost L.A. County by fewer than 60,000 in 2006; Pete Wilson carried it by 90,000 votes in 1994).
How to do that? For Maldonado and Kashkari (who’s of Indian descent), the approach is ethnic identity. For Donnelly, it’s guns, whether he chooses or not. That’s because media profiles invariably cite his brush with the law for bringing a loaded firearm to an airport (the same thing recently happened to basketball legend Bill Russell), or his alluding to a possible recall of Gov. Brown for signing gun-control legislation – or mini-recalls of anti-gun legislators.
Again, it’s a case of right message, wrong Pasadena. Last week, in fact, hundreds of Texas gun-rights activists rallied in San Antonio, outside the historic Alamo, in support of the right to publicly carry long arms. Back in Los Angeles, as part of that city’s Domestic Violence Awareness Month, newly elected City Attorney Mike Feuer talked about the role gun violence plays in domestic violence.
Such is the Texas-California political divide over guns and poses: The red state talks Second Amendment; the blue state talks second-degree assault and murder.
Which stance California Republicans adopt will play a role in whether Golden State voters give the party a second chance.
Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and a former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Reach Whalen at firstname.lastname@example.org.