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Politics

Rising confidence in California’s economy is a challenge for GOP presidential candidates

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Ted Cruz at the California Republican Convention in Burlingame. 

(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

The Republican candidates for president have campaigned all over the country lamenting the rough recovery from the recession and condemning President Obama — and by extension Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton — as failures when it comes to jobs and the nation’s well-being.

Then they come to California, where the state’s unemployment rate is 5.4%, more than eight percentage points below what it was when Democrat Jerry Brown took over from a Republican governor less than six years ago.

At the weekend state Republican convention, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz tied himself in rhetorical knots when he tailored his pitch to California.

“Y’all are a hardy bunch,” he told Republican delegates. “You are used to adversity and you have seen the absolute disaster, the absolute train wreck that is out-of-control liberalism.”

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But a few minutes later, he doubled back to deliver a backhanded acknowledgment of the state’s rising economy.

“That’s the mighty California spirit that built this state into such an incredible economic engine that you have survived and thrived in the face of Democratic mismanagement year after year after year,” he said.

It’s a basic rule of politics: Economic booms are often the result of outside forces, like a national upswing, but they accrue to the advantage of the incumbent party, just as economic downturns hurt the party in power. One of the challenges facing Republicans this year as they seek to regain the White House is increasing confidence in the recovery nationally and in places such as California.

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The recovery has been spotty enough that economic troubles remain. The loss of manufacturing jobs and stagnant wages have been prime topics in the Republican and the Democratic presidential contests this year. But in California, the notable improvement has forced the Republican pitch onto more nuanced and less politically potent ground: Things are OK, but they could be better.

As new voters equate better economic times with Democratic rule, the GOP’s efforts to rebuild here become even more difficult.

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To be sure, GOP candidates have a somewhat easier time convincing their own voters of the need for improvement. Republican voters are far more sour on the economy than Democrats, a fact that rests on their views of government and taxes and their powerfully partisan sentiments.

“This is how hyper-partisan and polarized we’ve become,” said Dan Schnur, director of USC’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics. “It used to be that voters based their political allegiances on real-world experience. Now they view the real world through the lens of their partisan allegiances.

“Just as there were many Democrats who refused to accept any positive outcome if George Bush or Ronald Reagan had anything to do with it, these Republicans simply can’t handle the idea that the economy has improved under Obama and Brown.”

An April Field Poll found that California voters, by 52% to 42%, felt that the state was going in the right direction. When Brown took over for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, only 10% felt that the state was going in the right direction.

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Underneath the current numbers was the sharp partisan divide. Among Democrats, 71% felt the state was doing well. But among Republicans, only 21% did. Nonpartisan voters, the much-sought-after and growing electorate group, were closer to Democrats at 54%.

The state is still in the throes of recovery, another April Field Poll made clear. Asked whether the economy was enjoying good times or bad, 46% said bad, to 39% for good. Although not upbeat on its face, the finding represented the fourth straight year in which the percentage saying times were good had grown and the negative percentage had dropped. In 2010, the year Brown was elected, 93% of California voters said the state was experiencing bad times.

Those numbers, too, have a partisan tilt, but state job figures show improvement even in strongly Republican areas. In Orange County, the state’s most populous Republican area, the jobless rate in March was 4%, down from 9.1% when Brown took over. In Kern County, a GOP stronghold, it dropped from 16% to 11.6% despite job losses because of the drought.

Even in the tiny farm town of Mendota, signs of improvement are evident. In her 2010 race for the U.S. Senate, Republican Carly Fiorina dared incumbent Democrat Barbara Boxer to meet her in Mendota, whose unemployment rate was approaching 50%. Fiorina blamed environmental measures backed by Boxer.

Fiorina raised the town’s woes again this weekend at the state GOP convention. Yet while Mendota continues to have problems, its circumstances have changed: the jobless rate in March was 20.6%.

Republicans point to difficulties that transcend the jobless rate: taxes, regulations, even the troubled schools.

Mariam Noujain of Placerville attended the convention as a guest. The 62-year-old DMV employee said she’s supporting Republican presidential front-runner and businessman Donald Trump in part because “America was built on business; it wasn’t built on government.”

She used to own a cafe in Sacramento that sold sandwiches and juices, but closed it in 1999 because of the onerous burdens posed by government. She said: “The regulations kill you.”

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California, she said, “should be booming.... OK, we’re not underwater. We could do so much better if the private sector could flourish.”

Claire Chiara, 21, a delegate from Berkeley and a candidate for state Assembly, said that “some very minor changes” have been made in Sacramento in recent years, but “at the end of the day, we have issues.”

“Even in the face of oppressive government systems that Republicans don’t like,” she said, “I think California still finds a way to thrive.”

cathleen.decker@latimes.com

Twitter: @cathleendecker

seema.mehta@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATseema

Times staff writer John Myers contributed to this report.

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