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The GOP blues

Last summer, Republican political operatives in California quietly filed an initiative to overhaul the state’s system of awarding all 55 of its electoral votes to the statewide winner of the presidential contest. If approved by voters, it would have divvied electoral votes among congressional districts. Republicans, in other words, would have had a shot at picking up a few key electoral college votes instead of simply watching, like witnesses at a traffic accident, as the Democrats scooped up every one in the nation’s largest blue state.

Unable to raise the money needed to gather enough signatures to qualify the initiative for the ballot, the campaign appears to have collapsed last month.

Before that happened, Democrats had blasted it as a cynical and sneaky Republican ploy. A good case could be made, however, that Republicans were simply desperate. The proposed ballot measure may have been a last-ditch attempt to recover a piece of a state that seems hopelessly lost to the opposition.

It’s not just a matter of whether Republicans at the national level must do without 55 electoral votes, or two seats in the Senate, or more than a sliver of the state’s 53-member House delegation. The endangered species known as the California Republican, depending on the party’s response to its present straits, may point the GOP’s way to the future -- or it might become extinct.

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This was long a solidly Republican state, the land of Ronald Reagan and the birthplace of perhaps the most influential American taxpayer revolt since the Boston Tea Party -- the 1970s campaign that led to the passage of Proposition 13 and that provided the Republican Party with its central message of the late 20th century. That energy is no more. It took a rare alignment of the political planets to put Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger in the governor’s office. He won his first term following the recall of Gov. Gray Davis, meaning he didn’t have to win a Republican primary. Many of his staunchest supporters admit he might not have been able to do so, because a more conservative and traditional pol could more readily have appealed to the party’s base. Schwarzenegger was able to use Republicans as only one ingredient in a stew that included California’s growing ranks of decline-to-state voters.

If tax cuts gave the Republican Party a message for the closing decades of the last century, can the Schwarzenegger brand of Republicanism be the GOP’s future?

The governor’s leadership in environmentalism and healthcare reform is very much in tune with his state, but it’s not clear that it’s in tune with his party. He rode into office on a vow to cut the state’s car tax, but he just signed a bill that will tack a few more dollars onto that very tax in order to promote clean fuels. He famously advised the party faithful that they were “dying at the box office” because they weren’t keeping up with the times. He hinted that he might be open to a revamp of the budget process, to keep a pesky minority from delaying its approval the way Republican lawmakers did this year. Republicans grumble that Schwarzenegger is not one of them -- yet the party was deep in debt until the governor made a few phone calls urging wealthy but reticent members to chip in.

The drive to end California’s winner-take-all system was wrongheaded and unfair, but it did point up an important fact of life: It will probably take a clever change of rules to reinvigorate the state’s Republican Party. One possibility would be an open primary, allowing independents (like those who backed Schwarzenegger in the recall) to weigh in. And redistricting reform would certainly help by breaking Republicans out of their safe but remote districts and thus forcing them to broaden their appeal.

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It may also be that California Republicans must do more to promote environmentalism, like Schwarzenegger, or break ranks with the party’s social agenda, as San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders recently did by signing a City Council resolution that backed same-sex marriage. If they make their move while continuing to embrace their historic defense of individual initiative, respect for private property and backing for free trade -- also traditional California values -- they may find themselves on the cutting edge rather than the scrapheap of Golden State history.


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