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Lieutenant governor's race a painfully familiar story to Calif. GOP

Lieutenant governor's race a painfully familiar story to Calif. GOP
Ron Nehring, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, chats with visitors at the California State Fair in Sacramento in July. Nehring is running a long-shot campaign against incumbent Gavin Newsom, a Democrat. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

It was a painfully familiar story to California Republicans: The party's little-known candidate for lieutenant governor would have $15,000 for the closing phase of his long-shot campaign to oust a Democrat who had $2.8 million in the bank.

Undaunted by the sour news in the latest finance reports, Republican Ron Nehring pressed ahead last month in his rented Buick, with campaign stops ahead in Bakersfield, Atascadero, Santa Barbara, Palm Desert and beyond.

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Nehring's battle to oust Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom is emblematic of an increasingly common brand of going-through-the-motions campaigns of Republicans seeking statewide office in an era when California's Democratic tilt all but guarantees they will fall hundreds of thousands of votes short.

After two decades of writing large checks to losers in one statewide contest after another, GOP donors have gotten tighter with their cash, leaving Republicans like Nehring with too little money to introduce themselves to voters through advertising.

"It's a huge issue, because they can't put any of their people on TV," said veteran political analyst Tony Quinn, a Republican. "They can't even say, 'This is a nice person,' because they don't have any money to."

Nehring and fellow Republicans running for attorney general, treasurer, insurance commissioner and governor face especially bleak prospects, polls show.

And though GOP leaders hope a favorable national climate will erode Democrats' legislative and congressional majorities in California, even the strongest Republicans seeking statewide jobs — Pete Peterson for secretary of state and Ashley Swearengin for controller — face a tough challenge.

To Nehring, a former state Republican Party chairman who lives in the suburbs east of San Diego, the race against Newsom is a matter of principle.

"No state should allow a political aristocracy to emerge, and the way we prevent an aristocracy from arising is by challenging the status quo," he said by phone on his way to a Ventura campaign stop.

Nehring, 44, has challenged Newsom to debate. Newsom has refused. Nehring's challenge is heightened by the ceremonial nature of the job he's seeking, an admitted frustration for the Democratic incumbent.

Newsom recently thanked Secretary of State John F. Kerry, a onetime Massachusetts lieutenant governor, for supplying him with a few jokes about the job's irrelevance. Newsom repeated one in an interview: "Wake up every morning, pick up the paper, read the obituaries, and if the governor's doesn't appear in there, go back to sleep."

Apart from serving as acting governor when the governor is outside California, the lieutenant governor's main duties are to sit on the University of California and State University boards and the State Lands Commission.

On talk radio, Nehring often mocks Newsom. In one interview, Nehring said the former San Francisco mayor enjoys sipping Cabernet out of a silver goblet at his Napa Valley vineyard rather than doing the hard work of lieutenant governor.

Nehring has also criticized Newsom for supporting the legalization of marijuana.

Newsom, 47, said he was proud of the network of winery, hotel and restaurant businesses that he and some partners have built in the Bay Area. He also said he did not like marijuana but believed the costs to society of keeping it illegal were too high at a time when too many Californians are unnecessarily incarcerated.

As for Nehring, Newsom blamed him for running the state Republican Party "into the ground," adding: "Enough said."

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Twitter: @finneganLAT

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