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Popular Republican governor, troubled GOP moving apart

Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO -- These should be heady times for the California Republican Party, which has a resurgent, world-famous governor in place whose outsize fundraising capabilities could flood its coffers with relatively little effort.

But the party Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will address at its semiannual convention in Palm Springs tonight is hardly flourishing.

It’s broke. It’s been embarrassed by scandal. And it’s almost entirely bereft of a bench; few members are considered strong enough to capitalize on Schwarzenegger’s momentum.

The governor has shown little interest in throwing the organization a lifeline. And some party leaders leave the impression that if one were to come their way, they might just throw it back.

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“He doesn’t agree with the vast majority of Republicans on most issues,” said Mike Spence, president of the California Republican Assembly, which works to elect conservatives.

“I imagine the gathering will not be a particularly happy one,” said Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

The party is still reeling from an internal row that ended with the resignation of its chief financial officer. The official was an Australian immigrant who had been ordered deported in 2001 and was jailed on visa violations in 2004.

The group also hired a Canadian with no political experience to be its political director, through a visa program that provides a limited number of work permits for immigrants with the skills to do jobs Americans can’t.

The moves came under attack from Republicans throughout the state, who charged that they undermined the party’s hard line on illegal immigration and suggested incompetence.

“I can’t understand how they could have been so stupid to hire these people,” said Raoul Lowery Contreras, a longtime Republican activist and blogger in San Diego. “Republicans were totally embarrassed by it. They felt betrayed. They couldn’t understand why they couldn’t find a single American to do these jobs.”

Though the Canadian stayed on, the finance official from Australia ultimately resigned.

Meanwhile, one GOP congressman from California, Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, went to jail last year on a bribery conviction. Two others, Rep. Jerry Lewis of Redlands and Rep. John T. Doolittle of Roseville, are under investigation for alleged ethics violations.

The party’s troubles were compounded when required filings with the state revealed that it was about $4 million in the red.

Even after a few big donors vowed to erase much of that debt, the party has continued to struggle financially. It is spending more on salaries and day-to-day expenses than it is raising each month, forcing the organization to cover operating costs by dipping into funds intended for legislative campaigns, a party official acknowledged.

Schwarzenegger, the Republicans’ star fundraiser, has not been collecting money for party operations, as many of his fellow members think he should. The more conservative activists who control the party continually undermine his agenda.

They cheered on the Republicans in the state Senate who embarrassed the governor during the summer by blocking passage of a budget. They denounce the landmark legislation he signed last year that curbs greenhouse gas emissions. They mock his proposal for bringing healthcare to all Californians as “socialized medicine”

The governor has been vacillating between reserved attempts to move the party to the center and a resigned effort to distance himself from an organization that many of his backers complain has been overtaken by wing nuts.

“The governor is very concerned about the future of the party,” said Schwarzenegger spokesman Adam Mendelsohn. “The party has been seeing diminished success.”

Schwarzenegger’s overtures have been met with anger.

This week he signed a letter to fellow party members that called on them to do away with their lengthy platform, a multipage document that expresses opposition to “government mandated health plans,” abortion, gay marriage and waiting periods for the purchase of firearms.

The letter, which was signed by the governor and three other California Republicans, suggests that the platform be replaced with a “concise” statement that stresses “core values” of the party, such as lower taxes, limited government and individual freedom.

Party activists immediately launched a resistance campaign. In a rush of e-mails and blog postings, they called on members not to remove social issues from the platform.

“The governor doesn’t want the party to stand for much,” said Spence, a platform committee member. “The party is struggling because our leadership has separated from the values and principles of the Republican Party.”

Spence’s influential group is known to attack GOP lawmakers who side with the governor. After state Sen. Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria) broke ranks with his colleagues and heeded the governor’s call to vote for a budget this summer, Spence said the party should abandon Maldonado’s reelection effort.

Some big donors say such thinking has made them reluctant to contribute to the state party.

“There are a lot of us saying, ‘Enough of this nonsense,’ ” said Bill Bloomfield, a businessman who gave $55,400 to the party last year and has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Schwarzenegger and to campaigns for ballot measures the governor championed.

Schwarzenegger “is on track to being one of the best governors we have ever had,” Bloomfield said. “It kills me to see our party snipe at him.”

William Lyon, one of the state’s biggest developers and a longtime Republican donor, said he was tired of the party “getting into these positions where you start eating your young. We just shouldn’t be doing that.”

The lack of unity affects more than the bottom line.

The list of California Republicans viable enough to succeed Schwarzenegger when he is termed out in 2010, according to Pitney, is pretty much limited to one person: Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, a moderate and the only Republican other than the governor who holds statewide office.

State Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks) is a perennial favorite of the party’s conservative activists. But he has yet to show that he can win statewide office after unsuccessful runs for governor, lieutenant governor and controller.

Party Chairman Ron Nehring said he was not worried. He said his organization was in the process of rebuilding so it could win more legislative and congressional seats. The party is recruiting a bank of candidates for local offices, he said, who ultimately will spread Republican influence and add to the field of challengers for statewide positions.

“We had been running from election to election,” Nehring said. “We finally had a chance over the summer months to concentrate on building our foundation.”

He said donations had dried up because contributors were focused on the presidential primary -- not because they were uncomfortable with the direction of the party. And he is revamping the fundraising operation, he said, to bring more small donors into the fold. He expects party coffers to refill in the fall.

But Bob Mulholland, a consultant to state Democrats, said his party has millions in the bank now.

“The only bright spot they [Republicans] can claim is Arnold -- who they don’t even like,” he said.

evan.halper@latimes.com


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