A Look at California’s Rising Republicans

Posted December 5, 2003 at 5:59pm

Second in a three-part series examining the future of California politics.

Thanks to the ascension of new Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), Golden State Republicans are more optimistic than they’ve been in years. Despite the GOP being shut out of all statewide offices in the 2002 elections, Schwarzenegger’s victory in the recall election instantly turned Republicans from deeply pessimistic to moderately hopeful about capturing some key offices in the next few years. [IMGCAP(1)]

Even some Democrats believe the GOP’s optimism is warranted.

California, said former Democratic state Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg, has “an electorate that’s a pretty moderate group of people.”

Not surprisingly, the list of potential future candidates for Congress and other high offices is long in a state with 34 million people — and 53 House seats. But thanks to gerrymandering, no more than a handful of those districts are competitive, and it’s probably a stretch to label most of them that way.

As a result, political professionals aren’t expecting a single close House race in the 2004 general election. Two open seats are worth watching — Rep. Doug Ose’s (R) Sacramento-area 3rd district and Rep. Cal Dooley’s (D) 20th district in the Central Valley. But their successors are almost certain to be chosen in competitive primaries, not in the general election.

In the 3rd’s GOP primary, state Sen. Rico Oller is squaring off against former state Attorney General Dan Lungren (R) and Ose’s sister, businesswoman Mary Ose.

While the new Member in the 20th is likely to be a Democrat, Republicans will also be watching the 46th district primary in Orange County between Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R) and former Rep. Bob Dornan (R).

Any hope for a greater number of competitive districts may rest with the voters. Reformers are hoping to place an initiative on the November 2004 ballot to take the chore of redistricting away from the Legislature and into the hands of a nonpartisan panel of judges. If the measure passes, the question then becomes whether it takes effect before the 2006 cycle or after the 2010 Census.

That doesn’t mean that there won’t be some turnover in California’s Republican House delegation in the next few cycles. Rep. Jerry Lewis, now in his 13th term, is 69. Rep. Buck McKeon is 65. Reps. Duke Cunningham and Bill Thomas are 61. Five other GOP Members from the Golden State are 55 or older.

And a few Republican Members are regularly touted for higher office. This list starts with Rep. Mary Bono, and includes Reps. Christopher Cox, David Dreier and George Radanovich. Rep. Darrell Issa, who provided much of the funding to get the recall of now ex-Gov. Gray Davis (D) on the ballot, is also likely to run for statewide office soon.

Even though Bono, 42, has given no hint that she’s going to do anything but stay in her current job for a while, a line already appears to be forming to replace her in the Riverside County district, led by state Sen. Jim Battin (R) and Assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia (R). Democrats would probably try to compete there whenever Bono leaves.

New Assembly Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R) is considered likely to try for the seat currently held by his mentor and former boss, Thomas, whenever the Ways and Means chairman moves on. State Republicans have high hopes for the 38-year-old Minority Leader, and some see him as a possible candidate for governor some day.

Several potential McKeon successors are also visible on the horizon. The list for this east-central California seat includes San Bernardino County Supervisor Fred Aguiar; state Board of Equalization member Bill Leonard (who may aspire to statewide office); former Assemblyman George Runner Jr., who is currently running for state Senate; and his wife, Sharon Runner, who succeeded him in the Assembly. All are Republicans. McKeon may also try to groom one of his six children to take his place.

At least three potential candidates are mentioned for the Ventura County seat held by Rep. Elton Gallegly (R), who is 59: Simi Valley City Councilman Glen Becerra (R); state Sen. Tom McClintock (R), a hero to conservatives who finished third in the recall election (and is considered more likely to try for a statewide office in 2006); and Assemblyman Tony Strickland, who just dropped out of the 2004 Senate primary. At 33, Strickland — whose wife is running to succeed him in the Assembly — is thought to have a bright future regardless of what happens to the family’s electoral fortunes next year.

Issa’s strong Republican seat in San Diego County is sure to attract attention when he runs for higher office. Two would-be candidates were already mobilizing in the summer with the hope that the two-term Congressman would be elected governor in the recall race (he eventually dropped out), and are likely to run whenever there is a vacancy.

State Sen. Bill Morrow, who finished second to Issa in the 2000 GOP Congressional primary, has already set up an exploratory committee. San Diego County Supervisor Bill Horn is also expected to run there.

Former Assemblyman Howard Kaloogian (R), another key figure in the Davis recall, was also being urged to run for Issa’s seat if he became governor, and he said he would. Kaloogian, however, lives in Cunningham’s adjacent district — and could run for that seat when it opens up.

Single potential successors are evident in at least a few other Republican-leaning House districts. State Sen. Richard Ackerman (R) — who is also contemplating a race for state attorney general in 2006 — is mentioned as a potential successor to Cox in Orange County.

Retiring Fresno Mayor Alan Autry (R), a former professional football player and actor, could run in Rep. Devin Nunes’ (R) Central Valley district — though Nunes is just 30 and a freshman and isn’t likely to be going anywhere any time soon.

State Senate Minority Leader Jim Brulte (R), who is term-limited in 2004, is perennially mentioned as a possible candidate for Dreier’s Inland Empire seat when it opens up, though he may have his sights on a statewide office.

Judy Biviano Lloyd (R), 43, a one-time top aide to former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) who heads the Labor Department’s Western regional office, is touted as a possible future candidate for House Resources Chairman Richard Pombo’s (R) seat.

Rod Pacheco (R), a 45-year-old former Assemblyman and chief deputy district attorney in Riverside County, could run for Rep. Ken Calvert’s (R) seat, though he is also mentioned for state attorney general. Another potential candidate for attorney general, state Sen. Chuck Poochigian (R), could run for Radanovich’s Central Valley seat when Radanovich retires.

The GOP also has a couple of potentially solid candidates in Democratic-held districts that could become more competitive if the boundaries are tweaked or if the seats become vacant.

Assemblywoman Shirley Horton (R), a former mayor of Chula Vista, is mentioned in Rep. Bob Filner’s (D) San Diego-area district. Assemblyman Guy Houston (R) gets talked about in Rep. Ellen Tauscher’s (D) East Bay district. State Sen. Bruce McPherson (R) thought about running against Rep. Sam Farr (D) in 2004 and declined, but could come back if the seat on the Central Coast opens up.

Finally, there are the Republican rising stars who are clearly going places — but no one is quite sure where yet.

Heading the list are two people who are close to Schwarzenegger and became closer to him during the recent recall campaign: Assemblyman Abel Maldonado and Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona.

Maldonado, who is running for state Senate in 2004, has been touted for everything from U.S. Senate to lieutenant governor to the House (he lives in Democratic Rep. Lois Capps’ Central Coast district).

“The sky’s the limit for him,” one Golden State GOP consultant said of the 34-year-old lawmaker.

Carona has been encouraged to run for the Senate or House, but may have his eye on lieutenant governor in 2006.

Other Republicans who could seek high office in the not-too-distant future: Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe, the only GOPer on the county board; former U.S. Treasurer Rosario Marin, if she falls short in her Senate bid next year without embarrassing herself; Los Angeles attorney Gary Mendoza, who lost the 2002 election for state insurance commissioner; and Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle, a 43-year-old former Assembly Speaker who had the good fortune (or the magic touch) to become mayor just before the Anaheim Angels won the 2002 World Series.

Next week: California’s Democratic rising stars.