For Republicans used to watching their party's long slide in California, a recent luncheon at a Torrance hotel offered up a serving of hope.
The three featured speakers were Republicans who had done the unexpected: finish first in primaries in deep-blue Los Angeles County. Two of the June 3 open primary victories came in Democratic districts and the other in a head-to-head contest with a Democratic incumbent in a swing district.
"These are exciting times for us," Bob Holmes, chairman of the South Bay Chapter of Lincoln Clubs, said at the event.
Despite the candidates' primary showings, however, politics watchers give long odds to Downey Councilman Mario A. Guerra, Los Angeles gang prosecutor Elan S. Carr, and businessman David Hadley of Manhattan Beach.
They cite district demographics, and a low-turnout primary, which has historically benefited Republicans, among other factors.
Guerra is running for state Senate in a Democrat-heavy area; Carr is trying to succeed U.S. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) in a liberal-leaning Westside congressional district; and Hadley is likely to encounter a more energized foe, with more money supporting him, than during the primary.
Instead, as the Republicans strive to break the Democrats' supermajorities in the Legislature and try to strengthen their dominance in the House, they appear to have set their priorities elsewhere for the Nov. 4 general election.
Those races include four congressional districts held by Democrats, as well as Assembly seats held by Democrats in Palmdale and Fullerton, and an open state Senate seat in Orange County.
But the GOP also must defend seats that Democrats believe they can take — two Central Valley congressional districts and two state Senate seats, also in the Central Valley. In the Assembly, GOP-leaning open seats in the Inland Empire and Ventura County have emerged so far as the main battlegrounds.
The expected focus on those highly competitive races means the three hopefuls who spoke at the Lincoln Club luncheon will probably have to get in line for party help in raising money and recruiting volunteers.
Still, Carr, Guerra and Hadley are all "the kind of Republican you can rebuild the party around," said Jim Brulte, chairman of the state Republican Party. "These candidates all reflect the communities in which they are running, and that's the most important thing."
Carr, Guerra and Hadley espouse fiscal conservatism and a pro-business stance while offering moderate to liberal views on environmental and social issues. All would be newcomers to state or federal office, which supporters say could appeal to voters weary of the partisanship in Sacramento and Washington.
Guerra, 55, came to this country with his Cuban family as a child and has been active with Grow Elect, a GOP effort to recruit and elect more Latino candidates to a party that has often been viewed as unfriendly to minorities.
Guerra won local, albeit nonpartisan, office in the heavily Latino (and Democratic) suburbs of Los Angeles County. He embodies the state party's goal of building on its success in electing members to city councils, school boards and the like.
Guerra is seeking to replace state Sen. Ronald S. Calderon (D-Montebello), who has pleaded not guilty to federal corruption charges and has been suspended from the Senate while his criminal case is pending. Guerra will face former Assemblyman Tony Mendoza this fall, having outpolled the Democrat 45.5% to 31.8% in the primary. When the votes of the other three of Mendoza's party are added, however, Democrats took 55.5%.
"I know I was considered an uphill candidate," Guerra told the luncheon group, adding that he has found many of the Democrats in his district to be "a lot more conservative" than conventional wisdom suggests.
Carr also finds himself in a Democratic district, running for the seat Waxman is retiring from after 40 years in Congress.
Ordinarily, Carr, 47, might have his best shot in the southern, more politically moderate half of the largely affluent district, which stretches from Malibu and L.A.'s Westside through the Palos Verdes Peninsula.
But his fall opponent is state Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), whose political base is in the south. Lieu, an Air Force veteran reservist and former member of the Torrance City Council, is considered more moderate than Waxman and also has ties in the Westside, where Carr lives.
Carr "is a great candidate, but he's in the wrong district," said Allan Hoffenblum, a former Republican strategist who publishes the nonpartisan California Target Book on state elections. "He will put on a respectable campaign" but won't appeal to the liberal Westside voters who are a force in district politics.
Demographics are less problematic for Republicans in the South Bay Assembly district where Hadley, 49, is running.
Democrats hold a seven-point registration edge, but the area has elected members of both parties over the years and prefers moderates over ideologues. Incumbent Al Muratsuchi (D-Torrance), a former state prosecutor and school board member, won the seat two years ago by defeating conservative Republican Craig Huey, 55% to 45%.
Hadley, who spent years volunteering in his community and raising money for Republican candidates, is a better fit for the district than Huey, Hoffenblum said, but he still must overcome a well-known incumbent who will have whatever help he might need from his robust state party.
Although Hadley edged Muratsuchi 50.5%-49.5% in June, a Muratsuchi strategist said that would change once the assemblyman begins campaigning in earnest, and an expected improved turnout will probably favor Democrats.
"There is nowhere for Hadley to go for votes in the fall," said the strategist, Mike Shimpock.