All Is Not Lost in California for State Republicans

Tony Quinn, co-editor of the California Target Book, which analyzes state legislative and congressional elections, has written extensively on election trends and political demographics

‘Bad luck” are the two worst words in politics, but California Republicans must confront those words as they sift through last Tuesday’s results. Just six months ago, state party stalwarts rallied behind Texas Gov. George W. Bush because his victory formula of 1998--building from the center--could make him a competitive presidential candidate in California for the first time in 12 years, and one who could rescue the party from its financial and political doldrums.

Then came South Carolina, Bob Jones University, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. Bush did what he had to do to win the GOP nomination, just as Vice President Al Gore did against former Sen. Bill Bradley. But there is one big difference: Nothing sticks to Gore, everything sticks to Bush. During the week before Gore swept Super Tuesday’s Democratic primaries, Maria Hsia, a top fund-raiser for Gore, was convicted of arranging more than $100,000 in illegal donations to the party and its candidates in 1996. Some of that money was raised at the Buddhist temple that has shadowed Gore throughout the campaign. No one even noticed. The Clinton-Gore fund-raising issue seems dead.

Then consider what happened to Bush after his visit to Bob Jones University,which banned interracial dating and tolerated anti-Catholic views, while Gore pandered to today’s leading racist and anti-Semite, Al Sharpton in New York. Bush had to apologize for the anti-Catholic sentiments that Bob Jones Jr. made 30 years ago. And it is Bush who must fend off charges of intolerance and bigotry, as well as dirty campaigning.

This creates no end of problems for the putative GOP nominee, who led Gore by five points in California last September but is now running 10 to 13 points behind, according to the latest polls. Californians have shown no sympathy for the religious right; a candidate tagged with that association is electorally dead in the state.

Yet, California must remain competitive if Bush is to have any chance of winning the presidency in November. He does not have to carry California, but he needs to tie up Democratic money and time in this must-win state for the Democrats. Bush cannot afford to abandon both coasts, as happened to Republicans in 1992 and 1996. Still, with Bush’s national lead against Gore a thing of the past, it is harder to make the case that Bush can remain competitive here.


But Bush has no choice. Four Republican-held congressional seats are in deep danger of being won by Democrats. That’s four-fifths of the seats Democrats need to recapture a majority in the House of Representatives. If Bush abandons California, it will be extremely difficult for Republicans to hold those seats.

Yet, within this discouraging picture are signs of how Republicans can make California competitive again. The successes of conservative initiatives on the ballot signify that California is not as overwhelmingly Democratic as some would have us believe. Gov. Gray Davis and the Democrats lost big on Proposition 22, the anti-gay-marriage measure, and, more important, on Proposition 26, the initiative to lower the voting requirement for school bonds, which they endorsed, too. The two trial-lawyer bills passed by the Democratic-controlled Legislature were blown away by Propositions 30 and 31.

Interestingly, Proposition 22 passed by a bigger margin than polling indicated it would, with heavy support from Latino voters. Furthermore, Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain did make some inroads into the Latino vote, which holds out hope that the GOP can again vie for Latino votes.

The 1998 GOP electoral massacre in California has forced the party’s legislative leadership to focus on the issue middle-class Californians care about: rebuilding schools and roads. The victories of most bond issues on last Tuesday’s ballot, combined with conservative votes on other fiscal issues, suggest a public willing to pick and choose, and this strengthens the centrist position legislative Republicans have staked out.

Perhaps the most telling race for state Republicans’ future was the forgotten one: the U.S. Senate primary pitting pro-choice Rep. Tom Campbell against two right-wing Republicans. Eight years ago, the right wing defeated the apostate Campbell; this time, he won the nomination with 56% of the Republican vote. This is a sure sign that Republicans voters do not want to be saddled any longer with candidates whose extreme positions on certain issues make them unelectable in the general election.

All in all, the election showed that California can be a competitive state in the presidential sweepstakes. The moderately conservative voter base is still in place; the swing vote is sizable. More than one-quarter of all primary voters crossed party lines. In addition to independents, this included partisans voting in another party’s primary. McCain carried this vote. These McCain voters are up for grabs here.

Because of the high numbers of crossover voters, neither Democrats nor Republicans accounted for a majority in California’s primary. The Democratic base vote--Gore plus Bradley--is about 43%; the Republican around 40%. GOP candidates won 41% of the open-primary vote in the U.S. Senate.

This means that Republicans can rebuild the electoral coalition that once made California a linchpin GOP state at the top of the ticket. They just need a candidate--and his name is Bush, the pre-South Carolina Bush, that is.

Bush will talk a great deal about education in future days, and sound as warm and fuzzy as possible. But he has left an easy trail of dots for Democrats of the James Carville school to connect: not quite ready for prime time, insensitive to bigotry, despoiler of the environment. California Democrats specialize in running campaigns against GOP “great Satans”: guns, tobacco, Newt Gingrich. Now they have new ones to target.

It will take some mighty fine footwork for Bush to avoid this corner of hell, probably a clear break with the right wing, a pro-choice running mate, maybe a change in the GOP abortion plank. The fate of California Republicans, control of the House and the presidency itself ride on the reemergence of the pre-South Carolina Bush. Short of that, it won’t be long before we’ll know whether “bad luck” remains California Republicans’ middle name.