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Republican Party Digs for Signs of Hope as It Reflects on Election Fiasco

Sacramento

A story Ronald Reagan loved to tell fits perfectly what Republicans are going through in California.

Reagan favored the story because it was about optimism, his lifeblood. Credit Garry South, Gov. Gray Davis’ political guru, with recalling the tale during election postmortems.

Briefly, the Great Communicator would tell of a boy who found a room full of horse manure and happily began digging through it. Why? Because, the boy replied, “with this much manure around, I know there’s a pony in here someplace.”

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Republicans now are anxiously looking for the pony in their California election debacle. While the GOP triumphed across much of America, it lost every statewide race here for the first time in 120 years.

It blew a chance to oust an unpopular Democratic governor. Republican Bill Simon Jr. lost to Davis by only five percentage points.

“Simon ran a dismal, awful campaign,” notes Tony Quinn, a veteran political analyst and former GOP advisor. “He had to really work at losing it. The real crime of his campaign was to depress the turnout of people who would have voted Republican.”

In the end, Democrats also wound up controlling both legislative houses by big margins. They hold both U.S. Senate seats and will again dominate California’s congressional delegation, 33 to 20.

South has used the manure story to belittle the Republicans’ digging through election results in search of hope for the future. The fact is, he says, the GOP has no bench of reserves capable of someday running for high office.

But in all those GOP losses, there indeed is a pony or two. And South concedes it.

The election was not a total loss for Republicans. They picked up legislative seats: at least two in the Assembly -- a third still is undecided -- and apparently one in the Senate.

Mainly, however, the election ended -- or should have ended -- a four-year debate about whether California was becoming another Hawaii: a state that, because of growing Latino and labor clout, is perpetually Democrat.

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(Actually, as it turns out, even Hawaii is no longer a Hawaii. It just elected a Republican governor, its first in 40 years.)

California is still a moderate, swing-vote state -- as it has been throughout history -- that can lean left or right depending on the issues and candidates.

“Democrats are kidding themselves if they think California automatically is locked in forever for them,” South says. “We have a lock right now, but that’s not a permanent condition.

“My concern is that the Democratic Legislature will push people too far where they don’t want to go, and there’ll be a backlash.”

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Harry Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute and a Claremont Graduate University professor, also says Democrats don’t have a lock on California in the 2004 presidential election. Al Gore carried the state by 12 points in 2000. But Pachon says President Bush “has the potential for drawing away Hispanic voters.

“First-generation immigrants are not wedded to either party that strongly.... Candidates matter.”

Latino turnout on election day was down -- from 13% of the electorate in 1998 to 10% in the Davis-Simon mud-wrestle -- according to The Times Poll.

Because only 50% of registered voters cast ballots, an all-time low, this election revealed the core support of each party. Statewide Republican candidates all got between 40% and 45%, averaging 42%. That’s the GOP core vote. Democrats got between 45% and 51%, averaging 48%. That’s their base.

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Most voters probably were party-ticket people. Conversely, most stay-at-homes, who couldn’t stomach either gubernatorial candidate, ordinarily would have been ticket-splitting swing voters.

So how can Republicans build on their base? They’re alive in California, but badly need rehab.

The state party must professionalize. Move its headquarters to Sacramento. Strengthen county organizations. Cease its incessant civil warfare.

More important, it needs moderate, socially tolerant candidates.

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Since 1988, no top-of-the-ticket candidate has won in California who didn’t support abortion rights. “Pro-life” moralists scare many women. So do pro-gun zealots and environmental despoilers. Until Republicans acknowledge this, they won’t win much of anything.

Women preferred Davis by 15 points, The Times exit poll found.

The GOP should recruit more women and minority candidates. Both seats picked up in the Assembly were by women; one also was a Latina.

“Republican leadership and candidates don’t reflect the diversity of California,” laments Cristi Cristich, an Anaheim manufacturer and GOP fund-raising activist.

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“Surely there are lots of articulate and qualified women out there.”

As Reagan would say, keep digging.


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