The Farm Team: Dominoes Fall When Schwarzenegger, DiFi Leave

Posted July 21, 2008 at 6:19pm

First in a three-part series

Conservative Republicans need not apply.

[IMGCAP(1)]If ever someone was going to write a help-wanted ad seeking Republicans with a realistic chance of winning a Senate race in California, that sentence would most certainly deserve top billing.

California is a political behemoth. Its state Legislature often foreshadows what is to come in Congress, and its 55 electoral votes are the biggest prize in the quadrennial presidential election, equaling 20 percent of the total haul of 270 electoral votes it takes to win the White House.

But competitive between the two major political parties, it generally is not.

On the presidential front, Democrats have had a lock on the Golden State since Bill Clinton won in 1992. Democrats control large majorities in both chambers of the Legislature, hold all statewide constitutional offices except for two and are threatening this cycle to expand their Congressional-delegation lead.

Allan Hoffenblum, a Los Angeles-based Republican political consultant who tracks state legislative and Congressional candidates, said independents are the key voting bloc in California — and they prefer moderates.

And because California’s Republican base is significantly smaller than its Democratic base, the GOP has a much tougher time succeeding in statewide races.

However, Hoffenblum was quick to point out that moderate Republicans usually fare better than left-wing Democrats, which is what happened in 2006, when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) won re-election over then-state Treasurer Phil Angelides (D).

“Neither the Democratic nor Republican base vote by itself can elect a [statewide candidate] — particularly the Republican base vote,” Hoffenblum said Monday. “Therefore, independent voters are critical. Look at the past several elections. Those independent voters prefer moderates.”

Not surprisingly, those Republicans talked about as potential challengers to Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) in 2010 are viewed as moderates. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D), arguably the most popular statewide elected official in California, is seen as too formidable to challenge in 2012.

But if Feinstein, who will be 79 in November 2012, decided to retire, crowded primaries on both sides of the aisle would likely ensue. The field of

Senate candidates in both 2010 and 2012 will be determined in large part on who runs for governor in 2010, when term limits will force Schwarzenegger to retire.

Most of the moderate Republicans who are mentioned as potential Senate candidates are actually eying the 2010 gubernatorial race. Schwarzenegger has declined to completely kill rumors that he might run for Senate against Boxer in 2010.

Among those moderate Republicans eying the 2010 gubernatorial race — but who might be persuaded to run for Senate instead to break up a logjam of moderates in the primary that would allow a conservative to sneak through — are state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner and former eBay Chief Executive Officer Meg Whitman.

Former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who has taken a high profile position in Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) presidential campaign, is also mentioned as a potential Republican Senate candidate by both Democratic and Republican insiders.

Some political strategists have also mentioned Gerry Parsky, a wealthy lawyer and for a long time President Bush’s point man in California on political and judicial issues. Former Rep. Tom Campbell (R), who has started an exploratory fundraising committee for the 2010 gubernatorial race, challenged Feinstein in 2000 and would be tough to persuade to run for Senate again.

With the exception of Campbell, everyone on that list of potential candidates — Fiorina, Parsky, Poizner, Schwarzenegger and Whitman — is a multimillionaire capable of self-funding a campaign, and Boxer is planning accordingly.

The two-term Senator closed the second quarter of this year with more than $3.5 million on hand, and her advisers are preparing to wage what they believe could be the most expensive Senate race in California history. Boxer’s team is also hedging on Schwarzenegger, believing the chances of him running for Senate are better than he has indicated.

“Sen. Boxer has great base of support in California, and handily won her last race,” said Rose Kapolczynski, a Boxer political consultant. “But she can’t take anything for granted in a state of this size where it is so expensive to run a campaign.”

Other Republicans who are mentioned as potential Senate candidates, either to challenge Boxer but more likely to run for an open seat in 2012 should Feinstein retire, include Rep. David Dreier; Rep. Dan Lungren, a former state attorney general who lost a 1998 gubernatorial bid; Rep. Darrell Issa, who has previously flirted with running for statewide office; former California Secretary of State Bruce McPherson; 2002 gubernatorial nominee Bill Simon; and Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle.

McPherson was appointed secretary of state by Schwarzenegger in 2005 to replace Kevin Shelley, who resigned. But McPherson lost his bid for the seat in 2006 to Democrat Debra Bowen.

State Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, an Orange County legislator, has already signaled that he’ll be running for the GOP Senate nomination in 2010.

State Sen. Tom McClintock (R), an unabashed conservative who has won and lost races for different statewide offices at least three times, is also mentioned as a candidate. McClintock is seeking the open 4th district seat this year, and is favored to win.

But because of his political history and strong name identification, some Republicans refuse to count McClintock out of the 2010 or 2012 Senate races. In fact, some Republicans speculate that McClintock might launch a 2010 gubernatorial bid. McClintock has been adamant that his only interest is the 4th district, which is being vacated by retiring Rep. John Doolittle (R).

Not all Republicans subscribe to the philosophy that the GOP needs to nominate a moderate to win statewide.

Consultant Jon Fleischman, a former California Republican Party executive director who publishes the FlashReport blog, said the GOP has failed in California because its nominees have waged poor campaigns that made fatal errors. Fleischman noted that Republicans have nominated moderates over the years who failed to do any better than conservatives.

“For Republicans to win California, it’s not whether we field a conservative or a moderate nominee,” Fleischman said. “It’s that we field a smart nominee who keeps the debate about the issues that matter to the voters.”

With California so friendly to the Democratic Party, there are no shortage of Democrats eying higher office. With the state’s two Senate seats held by Democrats, most of the focus has been on the governor’s office, which will be open in two years. But should Feinstein retire in 2012, expect a scramble among Democrats to replace her.

On the short list could be 2006 gubernatorial candidate and former state Controller Steve Westly; Angelides, the 2006 gubernatorial runner-up; Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa; Lt. Gov. John Garamendi; former state Speaker Fabian Núñez; Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley; Rep. Jane Harman, who previously ran for governor and is personally wealthy; and Rep. Ellen Tauscher, who also has a fortune she could tap.

Among some Democrats, the real rising star for statewide office is Rep. Loretta Sanchez. The Orange County Democrat has long coveted higher office, and her team has in the past few years polled to see how she would fare in a run for governor.

Should she bypass the 2010 gubernatorial race, look for Sanchez to be an often-mentioned candidate for Senate should Feinstein retire in 2012.

“She has the name ID, the charisma and the ability to raise the kind of money necessary to win a U.S. Senate seat,” said one Democratic operative who follows California politics. “And she’s made no secret of her plans to run statewide in the future.”