California GOP sitting out Senate race in conservative-leaning swing district

A state Senate race in the San Joaquin Valley has all the makings of a prime 2016 showdown: a swing district that leans conservative, a Democratic incumbent who notched a narrow win four years ago and a potential challenge from the leader of the Assembly Republicans.

But the California GOP plans to sit this one out.

Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen (R-Modesto) said party officials told her that if she runs against Sen. Cathleen Galgiani (D-Stockton), she'll be getting no help from them.

"The party has made a commitment to various interests that they will not spend party resources in Senate District 5," Olsen said in an interview.

Neither state GOP chairman Jim Brulte nor Senate Republican leader Jean Fuller of Bakersfield would comment on the unusual decision to lay off a competitive race, especially one that could involve a legislative leader. But it is the latest manifestation of a new political order taking shape in the Capitol.

At a time when GOP power in Sacramento has been on the wane, many business interests — which have traditionally skewed Republican and wield considerable clout in the party — are throwing their weight behind centrist Democrats like Galgiani.

A year from election day, groups such as the California Assn. of Realtors and Chevron have told the candidates and other political players that they're for Galgiani, a show of support from entities that routinely spend big to back their choices.

Jon Fleischman, a conservative Republican activist and former party official, said he believed the party was holding off on the race to appease business interests. The decision, he said, underscored "the party's dependency on interest groups in Sacramento who do not share the same priorities of the party all of the time."

Business support has helped make moderates the ascendant wing of the Democratic Party, able to flex their muscle in such legislative battles as this year's heated debate on climate issues.

Galgiani "has consistently been ranked as one of the most business-friendly Democrats" in the Legislature, said Trent Hager, her campaign spokesman.

In the Senate, Galgiani was the only Democrat to vote no in June on an ambitious bill to fight climate change, though she switched sides once a controversial provision opposed by oil companies was dropped.

The alliance between business interests and moderate Democrats has been most apparent since the demise of the party primary in California in 2010. Except in presidential races, the two candidates with the most votes advance to the general election regardless of party.

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Business groups have backed centrist Democrats in contests featuring other, more liberal members of the same party, who are often supported by labor unions.

But increasingly, business is also siding with moderate Democrats over customary Republican allies. Some corporate interests were furious last year when the Republican Party tried unsuccessfully to unseat Assemblyman Adam Gray, a moderate Democrat from Merced. A group financed by Chevron, the Dental Assn. and insurance agents sprang to Gray's defense with radio ads knocking his opponent.

Olsen, who will hold her leadership post until January, acknowledged that she and Galgiani are "political friends" on many issues. But she noted that even though Galgiani is a "mod," the senator still votes with her party on major legislation such as the budget.

Republicans in the Legislature serve as a check on the majority party, she said: "Our quality of life and our economy as a state and as a valley would be better off when there's more of a balance between the two parties," Olsen said.

Galgiani had around $130,000 in the bank for her 2016 race as of June 30. Olsen had nearly $380,000 for a 2018 Senate run, and she could tap it next year.

The Central Valley Senate district spans all of San Joaquin County, including the city of Stockton and parts of Sacramento and Stanislaus counties. Democrats hold a four-point registration advantage, and Galgiani eked out a win over Republican Assemblyman Bill Berryhill in 2012.

In that race, it was Berryhilll who scooped up most of the business community's support. One notable exception was the Realtors group, which spent more than $620,000 on Galgiani's behalf.

The organization said it did not explicitly pressure the GOP to withhold money from the race next year.

"Of course we speak to party leaders about all races," said Laiza Garcia, who directs the group's political action committee, "and no, we did not urge the [party] not to devote resources to [Senate District 5], should Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen decide to run."

There's still potential for a costly showdown. Mega-donors such as Republican Charles T. Munger and Bill Bloomfield, an independent who has backed GOP contenders, have been willing to pump millions into efforts to help their chosen candidates.

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For the Record

Nov. 6, 9:32 a.m.: An earlier version of this article said Bill Bloomfield is a Republican. He is an independent.

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Olsen said she would make a decision by the end of the year. The lack of party money, she said, won't be a determining factor.

"Will it be disappointing not having the party with me? Of course," Olsen said. "But will that convince me or discourage me from running? No."

melanie.mason@latimes.com

Twitter: @melmason

For more, go to latimes.com/politics.

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on November 07, 2015, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "GOP will sit out this Senate race - In a swing district that leans conservative, Kristin Olsen is told she's on her own." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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