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California Republicans confront long odds in race to fill Sen. Barbara Boxer’s seat

Tom Del Beccaro
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

For the three top California Republicans running for U.S. Senate, the poll numbers look bleak. The wallets of political donors are expected to be tough to pry open. And Republican voter registration in the state continues to trend toward inhospitable.

Even GOP loyalists meeting in Anaheim for the California Republican Party’s semi-annual convention this weekend say the party will be lucky to have a candidate finish in the top two in the June primary.

If they fall short, the November runoff election would likely feature the two Democrats currently leading the polls -- state Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris and Rep. Loretta Sanchez of Garden Grove -- thanks to California’s primary rules allowing the top two finishers in the primary, regardless of party, to advance. 

“It’s an uphill battle, just because of the numbers. There’s no getting around that,” said R. Alan Smith, a San Diego Republican volunteering at the convention.

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Here are those numbers: Democrats hold a 15% advantage over the GOP in voter registration in California. The last time a Republican won a Senate race in California was 1988, when Pete Wilson was reelected. It has been nine years since a Republican won a statewide general election: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger won a second term in 2006 and Steve Poizner was elected state insurance commissioner.

But the primary is more than eight months away, so Republicans are still talking optimistically.

“Hey, in politics eight months is forever,’’ said Hugh Bussell, a physicist and Republican delegate from Livermore. “Looking at the last several elections, it looks hard. But people are looking for a change in Washington.”

If the Republican presidential primary turns into a cliffhanger through the spring, party turnout may spike high enough to push a Republican candidate into the runoff. The GOP field also may thin out, allowing Republicans to coalesce behind a single candidate.

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“Certainly it’s a challenge,’’ said GOP hopeful and Contra Costa lawyer Tom Del Beccaro, a former chairman of the state Republican Party. “Republicans need to get behind a single candidate, one who cannot only unify the party, but attract independents.’’

His top Republican rivals -- Silicon Valley attorney George “Duf” Sundheim, and state Assemblyman Rocky Chavez of Oceanside -- agree. Only, each one thinks it’s the other two guys who should drop out.

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None of the top candidates have a particularly strong political base. Sundheim and Del Beccaro are from the heavily Democratic Bay Area and have never run for public office, and Chavez is barely known outside the sliver of northern San Diego County he represents.

Still, Republican political consultant Tim Clark said all three have political strengths they can build on.

Del Beccaro, who on Saturday signed a pledge not to raise taxes, is a regular on conservative talk radio up and down the state. That’s an effective, and cheap, way to win over the Republican base, Clark said. Sundheim was one of the engineers behind the recall of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, and helped raise a lot of money for the state GOP. Chavez, a former Marine colonel, can appeal to veterans. He also is Latino and favors a pathway to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally, so he may spark interest among moderate and Latino voters. 

“The challenge is to get voters to remember the name ... and at least one thing they stand for -- No new taxes. Stop Obamacare,” Clark said.

Ron Nehring, who served as chairman of the Republican Party between Sundheim and Del Beccaro, said all three GOP candidates will have a tough time raising the millions of dollars necessary to spark name recognition.

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The state party won’t help -- it didn’t give a dime to Nehring during his unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor last year, he said. A lot of the money from generous Republican donors is flowing into the presidential race. And national Republicans aren’t expected to be financial saviors.

Andrea Bozek, spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the party’s main financial player in Senate races, didn’t offer much hope for trying to keep the seat after Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer retires.

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“We have 24 incumbents up for reelection this cycle, so they are going to take the priority right now,” Bozek said. “And California is a very expensive state, and resources are tight because it’s a presidential year.”

As of June 30, Harris already had $2.9 million available in her campaign account, and Sanchez reported $1.1 million, federal elections records show. Del Beccaro had $72,000, and Chavez came in with $23,000.

Sundheim, who recently announced his campaign, has yet to file a report on his campaign account but said he needs to raise at least $3 million for the primary to finish in the top two. He said he’s confident he can hit that target.

A USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times opinion poll released in mid-September found Harris at 26% and Sanchez at 17% among registered voters. Del Beccaro registered at 10% and Chavez with 9%. Sundheim entered the race too late to be included in the poll.

GOP political consultant Mike Madrid said that for a Republican to advance to the November election, the candidate must also persuade minority voters, particularly Latinos, to break their political allegiance to the Democrats. Even Chavez will have difficulty doing that, because Latinos rarely vote for Republicans -- even Latino ones, Madrid said.

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“That’s going to be an extraordinary challenge, because Donald Trump may be on the ballot,” Madrid said.

Trump, the presidential candidate who is leading the Republican field in recent national and California opinion polls, has vowed to build a massive border wall and end birthright citizenship for children of immigrants who are in the country illegally, energizing Republican supporters and raising the ire of many California Latinos, Madrid said.

Madrid predicted that if Trump is still in the race in June, he would almost certainly increase Republican turnout, but also would "chase Latinos away from any Republican candidates up and down the ballot.

Which means, he added: “It’s more likely than not that Kamala and Loretta will be in the general.”

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FOR THE RECORD

Sept. 21, 11:48 a.m.: An earlier version of this article quoted Republican political consultant Mike Madrid as saying, “It’s more than likely than not that Kamala and Linda will be in the general.” The correct quote was: “It’s more likely than not that Kamala and Loretta will be in the general." 

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Twitter: @philwillon


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