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After a Winning '94, State GOP Goes for Internecine Warfare

August 27, 1995|Sherry Bebitch Jeffe | Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior associate at the Center for Politics and Economics at Claremont Graduate School and a political analyst for KCAL-TV.

In nature, there are examples of species that devour their own. Take, for instance, the California Republican Party.

After a disastrous 1992 election in California, which saw a Democratic sweep of the top-of-the ticket races and surprising losses in some newly redistricted--and GOP-leaning--legislative districts, Republicans fought back in 1994. They gained a numerical majority in the California Assembly for the first time in roughly 25 years and positioned themselves within striking distance of controlling the State Senate. GOP Gov. Pete Wilson staged the prize comeback, coming from behind to trounce his Democratic opponent, then-State Treasurer Kathleen Brown, and win reelection.

However, the tribulations of 1995 indicate California Republicans may again be threatened with the problems that bedeviled them in 1992--internal dissension, weak leadership and little prospect of waging the well-organized, well-funded, united campaigns that Californians once expected from the Grand Old Party.

The internecine warfare that rocked the Assembly Republican caucus when Doris Allen (R-Cypress) ascended to the Speakership, solely on the shoulders of now-Speaker Emeritus Willie L. Brown Jr. and the Assembly Democratic caucus, could take a toll on Republican prospects in next year's elections.

Media and voters alike ooze disdain for the mean-spirited shenanigans that have disrupted the state Capitol. But that hurts incumbents of both parties. What puts GOP candidates at particular risk is the spate of recall elections that disgruntled Republicans launched this year--first against apostate GOP Assemblyman Paul V. Horcher, then against Democratic Assemblyman Michael J. Machado (D-Linden) and Allen.

Republicans squaring off in recall campaigns will have to raise and spend an unprecedented amount of money for an off-election year. That will hamper 1996 fund-raising.

An enfeebled Allen has been unable to exert the kind of campaign and fund-raising clout exercised by Brown to protect his majority--and hence the Speakership. And any money Allen can raise will go first into saving her own neck.

Fueling the Allen recall will divert GOP money. (The party was a major source of the $1 million spent to recall Horcher). Might GOP fortunes be better served by putting party funds into 1996 registration and get-out-the-vote operations? Might vindictive legislators gain more by using their resources to elect like-minded allies next year, rather than wasting them on self-immolation now?

Allen's coup of Assembly GOP Leader Jim Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga) has put the GOP's ability to solidify a legislative majority at further risk. Brulte, the chief architect of the GOP's 1994 Assembly comeback, has resigned his leadership post to concentrate on his coming race for the State Senate. In a move not calculated to cement Republican solidarity, the GOP caucus has chosen conservative Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove), an inveterate legislative foe of Allen and a leader in the recall campaign against her, to succeed Brulte. It seems unlikely that Allen, who gutted Brulte's staff, Pringle or any other Republican can replicate Brulte's 1994 campaign operation.

Matters are no better in the State Senate. Last week, Rob Hurtt (R-Garden Grove), a millionaire GOP senator with close ties to the religious right, dumped moderate Republican Ken Maddy (R-Fresno) as State Senate GOP leader. This will move the GOP caucus to the right and make the Senate even more partisan.

Hurtt mustered a bare majority of the Senate's 17 Republicans, to oust Maddy after eight years as leader. He had tried before, but failed. Hurtt has been the Senate's point person on campaigns--recruiting candidates and raising money.

And there's little chance Wilson can unite the party for 1996. California Republicans are already divided over his presidential candidacy. Many are angry at Wilson for reneging on his no-run pledge. GOP legislators worry Wilson's absence from Sacramento will stymie their ability to build a policy record to sell Californians next year. Republicans worry, too, that Wilson's presidential race will siphon off money that might go to GOP legislative candidates--giving Democrats the opportunity to cement control of both houses.

Perhaps the wildest take on the California GOP's war with itself is the spectacle of Wilson basically suing himself. In line with the anti-affirmative action thrust of his presidential campaign, Wilson recently filed suit to overturn his own state's affirmative-action laws. The political fallout from Wilson's action could prove unhelpful to another Republican, California Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren. Lungren has been touted as the state GOP's next standard-bearer. He has even been mentioned as a vice-presidential prospect by the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination, Sen. Bob Dole.

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