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Running away from home

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Tony Quinn was a member of the Assembly Republican Caucus staff in the 1970s and 1980s.

State Sen. Tom McClintock, who will be termed out in December after serving 22 years in the Legislature, wants to extend his political career by winning election to Congress in a district more than 400 miles north of his home in Thousand Oaks, his base for the past quarter of a century. It may be a reach too far. The conservative Republican icon cannot even vote for himself for Congress in the June primary because state law does not allow him to register in the congressional district without giving up his seat in the state’s 19th Senate District.

California rarely has an open congressional district, but Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Roseville) is stepping down in the 4th Congressional District because of an FBI corruption investigation into his relations with convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Several local Republicans considered running for Doolittle’s seat in the heavily GOP district, which includes suburban communities east and north of Sacramento. One of them, conservative Rico Oller, had represented the area for eight years in the state Senate.

But when McClintock, 51, showed up, after testing the waters in two other congressional districts and for the state Board of Equalization, the state’s Republican right moved to clear the field of two conservatives candidates by forcing Oller out of the race. Oller’s political contributions suddenly dried up, and the local GOP central committee shifted its support to McClintock.

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The Republican right’s infatuation with McClintock borders on a cult of personality. It simply cannot fathom the idea that he would not hold a public office in the state. Its fervent embrace of him sadly illuminates the dismal status of the once-powerful conservative movement in California.

No politician in modern California history has lost as many statewide races as McClintock. In 1994, the year of the greatest Republican landslide in the country since World War II, McClintock lost to Democrat Kathleen Connell for the open state controller’s office. Eight years later, he sought that office again, losing this time to Democrat Steve Westly. In 2003, he ran for governor in the recall of Gray Davis, losing again when the GOP establishment rallied around Arnold Schwarzenegger. And in 2006, he ran for lieutenant governor, but Schwarzenegger, who was seeking a full term as governor, shunned him, and McClintock lost again.

Before his string of statewide setbacks, he ran for Congress in 1992 -- and lost to Democratic incumbent Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson in the 24th Congressional District.

Remarkably, McClintock’s losing streak beyond his home base in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties has not stilled the admiring hearts of staunch conservatives in the state. In this, the Republican right is like the Lost Cause Confederates after the Civil War, reveling in its defeats. Once it was the mighty army that blazed the trail for Ronald Reagan, twice landslide victor for California governor and twice for president.

But since the 1990s, California has lurched to the left, and time has passed the GOP right by. The one successful Republican of this era, Schwarzenegger, has steered clear of conservative orthodoxy.

McClintock’s appeal to the right is that he is an unbending conservative who calls forth its glory days. The office he seeks or holds is far less important than the cause for which he stands, most notably his unyielding opposition to any tax increases in an era when the state’s leading Republican has followed a more pragmatic and centrist approach to governing.

Were the open congressional seat in Fresno, the right wing would have urged McClintock to run there. Were it in Bakersfield, GOP conservatives would have supported him there. As it happens, the open seat is in the Sacramento suburbs, so his right-wing army will follow him there.

If McClintock had his druthers, he probably would be running for reelection back in his state Senate district and planning another gubernatorial race in 2010. Had term-limits extension, Proposition 93, passed in the Feb .5 election, McClintock could have remained in Sacramento until 2012, giving him 26 years in the Legislature. Ironically, Republican conservatives helped kill Proposition 93 and thus shortened McClintock’s legislative career (14 years in the Assembly and eight in the Senate), though still the longest in recent California history.

The U.S. Constitution does not require a member of Congress to live in his or her district, but California legislators must, under the state Constitution. Although the issue has not been litigated because no one in California has ever tried what McClintock is trying, it appears that he would have to forfeit his state Senate seat if he registered to vote in his adopted district.

McClintock does not have a free ride in the congressional race. Although the Republican right forced Oller and another conservative out of the primary, former Republican Rep. Doug Ose, who represented an adjacent congressional district from 1998 to 2005, is running in the primary. He already is airing television ads and sending out mailers. And in the general election in November, McClintock, if he gets by the primary, will face Democrat Charlie Brown, who received 46% of the vote against the retiring Doolittle in 2006.

Beyond political rivals, McClintock’s move north may not sit well with the 415,000 new voters he’s seeking to represent. They rejected Proposition 93 by a huge margin. In Placer County, the largest in the 4th Congressional District, 59% of voters opposed the term-limits initiative.

Voters support term limits in large part because they want fresh faces in government, and they do not object to termed-out legislators running for other offices. But in the case of McClintock, you have a professional politician seeking to extend his career in a district where he has no local ties simply because he’s barred from running back home. It is hard to believe that 4th District Republicans, who voted to maintain the term-limits status quo, would fall for this kind of political maneuvering.

McClintock’s supporters insist that ideology trumps local representation. Anti-big government conservatives are in the odd position of arguing that McClintock must remain on the public payroll where he has spent virtually all his adult life. That could be a hard sell to a cynical electorate in 2008.

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