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Capt. Schroeder First Off Listing State GOP Ship

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the last two years, state Republican Party chairman Michael Schroeder has helped raise record amounts of money, operated a smooth absentee ballot program and financed an extensive get-out-the-vote effort.

But when the votes were counted last November, California Republicans took their worst drubbing in 40 years. That makes Schroeder the captain of the Titanic in the eyes of some, even if others, such as gubernatorial candidate Dan Lungren, helped steer the ship into the electoral iceberg.

Partly that’s the nature of the job and partly it’s the nature of the man, who steps down today from the leadership post.

“The party chair . . . either gets to be the unsung hero or he gets to be the goat,” said state Sen. Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga. “If you have a great year, the candidates who ran take all the credit. If you have a bad year, the candidates blame someone else.”

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State Sen. John R. Lewis (R-Orange) blames the losses on the cyclical nature of politics and not Schroeder, who is nearly always described as a top notch fund-raiser, smart and detail-oriented. The GOP lost the governor’s post for the first time in 16 years, and Democrats made inroads across the state, including in Orange County.

“Whoever would have been Republican Party chairman in this last election cycle would have been licking his or her wounds election night,” Lewis said.

Others, however, have complained about Schroeder, many focusing on the Irvine lawyer’s iconoclastic style of leadership.

“Mike is extraordinarily politically astute. But it may have worked both to his advantage and the party’s advantage had he made more of an effort to act as part of a team rather than a solo player,” said GOP strategist and consultant Dan Schnur.

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It didn’t help that Schroeder was a leader of the social conservative wing of the party in a year most voters embraced moderation.

Indeed, as Schroeder steps down, moderate Republicans are seeking to wrest some control of the GOP from their more conservative party mates. The moderates say a more inclusive party is the only way to make a political comeback.

Although he quarrels with the Lone Ranger characterization, Schroeder, a 42-year-old Orange County native, agrees he was not always politic about picking his battles. But he says he left the party apparatus in a lot better shape than he found it.

Even Schroeder’s friends say it was unwise of him to be the lead attorney for former Rep. Robert K. Dornan in his ugly battle with successor Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) over alleged voter fraud.

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That put the state party leader out front on a topic of some sensitivity to the party--their failure to appeal to Latino voters. At the same time Schroeder was accusing Latinos of voter fraud, he was seeking to woo them and other minorities to the GOP.

“I thought that was a terrible mistake on his part,” Brulte said. “That was not his job.”

But Schroeder is unapologetic, insisting he made the right choice. Sometimes, he said, two goals--such as attracting Latino voters and rooting out voter fraud--"come into tension.”

“I have had a history of taking on political causes I believe to be right pretty much without regard to whether or not the initial prospects of winning looked favorable,” Schroeder said.

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Two examples he cites: the campaign to recall maverick Republican lawmaker Paul Horcher, which succeeded, and the campaign to recall South Orange County Community College District Trustee Steven J. Frogue, which failed.

Schroeder said he got the state party involved in the Frogue recall because it was the right thing to do, given the fellow Republican’s actions. Frogue was accused of anti-Semitism among other things, contentions he strongly denied.

The connection with Dornan did not prevent Republicans from greatly increasing their appeal to minority voters last November:

Schroeder said various exit polls showed 23% to 26% of the state’s Latino vote went to Lungren, up from the 6% of Latinos who voted for Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole in 1996.

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In the election post-mortems, it didn’t help that Schroeder was viewed as a symbol of social conservatism.

Some say that message has led to defections of loyal GOP voters, as well as independents and moderate Democrats.

“It seems like they set out to see how many people in the state they could alienate, and they were pretty successful,” said Ventura County party leader Bob Larkin, a pro-choice moderate.

Others insist the election was lost because Lungren ran such a lackluster campaign that many GOP voters stayed home.

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“I don’t think this election has anything to do with the repudiation of social conservatives,” said Christopher Wysocki, a consultant who ran the GOP Assembly races.

Schroeder agrees. “‘We didn’t do well because there was a complete failure to communicate” a message, Schroeder said. “And our base punished us by staying home.”

The debate is expected to rage this weekend at the party’s biannual state convention in Sacramento, and Schroeder said that’s healthy.

As he prepares to step down this weekend, moderate Republicans are seeking to wrest some control of the state party from their more conservative party mates.

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Larkin, who is leading the moderates’ effort, says a more inclusive party is the only way for the GOP to make a political comeback. The moderates are running a slate against Schroeder’s allies.

“When the team loses, you fire the coaches,” Larkin said.


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