Where'd All the California Republicans All Go?

by | January 30, 2014 AT 1:50 PM

By Christopher Cadelago

Four years ago, Kamala Harris narrowly defeated Steve Cooley to become California attorney general, clinching a Democratic sweep in all eight statewide offices.

Fewer than 75,000 votes out of roughly 8.8 million cast separated the two candidates.

Just five months ahead of the primary election this year, Republicans have yet to even field a candidate against Harris.

The lack of competition for the state's top law-enforcement post and other down-ticket contests, political consultants of both major parties say, underscores the party's shallow bench and tarnished standing as it copes with the state's rapidly shifting demographics.

With spring filing deadlines approaching, those closely monitoring statewide campaigns also see gaps for the GOP in the upcoming contests for lieutenant governor, treasurer and controller.

Ron Nehring, former chairman of the California Republican Party, has spent the last week warning that the party risks a drubbing up and down the 2014 ballot.

"This is a real challenge in that we are two steps away from a nightmare scenario where the statewide ticket appears so weak that some Republicans simply give up and throw in with Jerry Brown, creating chaos for Republicans running in competitive seats around the state," Nehring said.

In the last election alone, California Republicans surrendered supermajority control of the state Legislature, lost decisive congressional races and saw their voting ranks drop below 30 percent statewide.

"Their problem is that they don't just lack a deep bench, their entire arena is empty," said Jason Kinney, a Democratic political consultant. "California Republicans just don't have anybody around who can move the needle. They've got to rebuild from the ground up, which is going to be a long-term play, and in the short term that's going to hurt them."

Ken Khachigian, a Republican strategist, said the 2010 clash between Harris and Cooley was an indicator of the GOP's increasing challenges in statewide elections.

Harris, the district attorney of San Francisco, personally opposed the death penalty. Cooley, the district attorney of Los Angeles, supported the death penalty and challenged her commitment to enforce it. He also was a relatively well-known incumbent prosecutor in a county roughly 10 times the size of San Francisco.

"That was probably the canary in the coalmine that California is becoming so blue that it's hard even for a high-name-ID Republican to win a race like that," said Khachigian, who managed Dan Lungren's successful run for attorney general in 1990 and Chuck Poochigian's unsuccessful bid for the office in 2006.

The new voter-approved primary system, in which the top two vote-getters regardless of party advance to the fall runoff, may only exacerbate Republicans' problems here.

Given how the primary field is shaping up, it appears inevitable that at least one statewide race will be an intraparty contest between Democrats, said Garry South, a Democratic strategist.

Republicans will not be able to find eight candidates that will finish first or second, he said. That's a far cry from 1970, when the party held almost every statewide elected office and majorities in both houses of the Legislature. Many of the statewide posts haven't been held by Republican in more than a decade.

"Republicans have to envision a world where they don't just have some sacrificial lamb who gets whacked in November," South said, "but where they don't even have a candidate on the ballot."

California Republican Party Chairman Jim Brulte declined to discuss the party's prospects in statewide races.

State GOP spokesman Mark Standriff said there are "discussions going on" about statewide seats, but did not list the races among the party's priorities this year.

Instead, he said the party plans to focus on three main objectives: helping retain Republicans' House of Representatives majority, working to eliminate the Democratic supermajorities in the Legislature and building its "farm team" by electing Republicans to local offices.

That approach doesn't sit well with Nehring.

"It has become fashionable among too many Republicans to openly predict a wipe-out among the statewide officers and therefore claim that all of our emphasis should be on a handful of district elections," he said.

California election experts say there are still opportunities for Republican candidates to reach the general election, estimating that 1.7 million to 1.8 million Republicans will cast ballots in the gubernatorial contest. The GOP candidates will likely draw another 200,000 to 300,000 nonaligned voters who are actually regular Republican voters, said Paul Mitchell of Political Data Inc.

"Those 2 million Republicans are going to look for somebody with an 'R' after their name running for these other offices," said Tony Quinn, a political consultant and former Republican legislative aide. "So you would think that even if they are practically unknown, they could get in and get nominated."

However, some races are bound to feature two Democrats, he said.

Critics of the party's strategy said it's easy enough to elect Republicans in local, nonpartisan races, but the task becomes much more difficult when the candidate must run with the Republican label.

The party's fortunes won't improve until it shifts its positions on hot-button issues such as abortion, gun control, same-sex marriage, the environment and health care, South said. "You can't expect the voters to conform to a party; a party has to conform to the voters," he said. "That's what the Republicans don't get."

Khachigian said other issues, such as health care, could cut in Republicans' favor at some point.

"I wouldn't say it's hopeless because things change and they could over the years," he said. "Or, California just becomes like Massachusetts and New York and some of these other states where it is just irretrievably blue and the only time you are going to get a breakthrough is if somebody unique comes out of the corporate community or a high-profile position to run in one of these races."

In the meantime, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, has yet to draw a major opponent. Controller John Chiang, also a Democrat, could assume the treasurer seat without a fight.

Even if GOP candidates emerge by March, they will be getting a late start. Harris, for example, began laying the groundwork for her first race for attorney general more than two years in advance.

Since taking office in 2011, she's raised roughly $5 million and secured the support of a wide range of law enforcement officials and organizations that spurned her previous candidacy.

"The best way I think to run for re-election as the incumbent is to do a good job while in office," said Brian Brokaw, Harris' campaign spokesman. "That puts her in a strong position to start with and it's probably reason No. 1 why you aren't seeing people jumping in to oppose her.

"Beyond that, having raised a significant amount of funds I think can also be a deterrent from anyone thinking they can just buy the office with money."

Still, Republican strategist Rob Stutzman characterized it as "the biggest missed opportunity not to run someone against her." "She is the most vulnerable Democrat statewide incumbent, and she becomes even more vulnerable if a Republican prosecutor would step up and run," he said.

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