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ELECTIONS '96 | CAPITOL JOURNAL

A Sober End to the GOP's Revolution

November 07, 1996|GEORGE SKELTON

COSTA MESA — Some former rebels of the Republican "revolution" wandered around aimlessly with stiff drinks in their hands, stone sober. Not even booze could get them high on this election night.

Others--professional politician rebels--hid out in seclusion, as if pulling the covers over their heads and hoping it would all go away.

They barricaded themselves in hotel rooms behind rent-a-guards, huddling with trusty cohorts and nervously ingesting the latest returns, waiting frantically for any good news. There was little.

Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove) never did come downstairs to the California Republican Party's official "Victory Gala." Finally around 4 a.m. Wednesday, the soon-to-be-dethroned-speaker slinked out of the hotel, muttering something about it being "a Democratic year."

Here in Orange County--mecca for GOP conservatives across America--California Republican leaders watched the Newt Gingrich-led "revolution" fizzle out. At least in this state. Republicans may have kept control of Congress, but they lost House seats in California. Worse, they lost control of the state Assembly and fell farther behind in the state Senate.

They hadn't expected this. Sure, they knew their presidential candidate was a loser.

At the same time Bob Dole was babbling on Monday about being another Harry Truman, state GOP officials were passing the word that Jack Kemp--their star guest at the "victory" party--would be making his concession speech at 8:10 p.m. Ten minutes after California polls closed, assuming Dole would cooperate by promptly conceding the obvious.

Dole did, although the burial services were a few minutes late.

*

The eulogies for Kemp as a running mate were mixed.

If there were any "Kemp in 2000" signs among the hundreds of party faithful, I missed them. I heard only polite applause when the native Californian declared: "The ideas of this campaign will live on, and I pledge to continue to advance those ideas."

There was louder applause for the ideas themselves: "lower taxes, limited government, private property and equality of opportunity."

Kemp's gravely wounded, many activists said privately. One high-ranking Republican reported that Dole had confided his disappointment in Kemp's genteel style of campaigning, especially in the debate with Vice President Al Gore. Kemp also never seemed to fully accept the party positions against affirmative action and illegal immigration.

Commented a party operative: "He's like someone you always wanted to date, then you do and the date isn't that good."

But Kemp also had many boosters. Former Senate candidate Mike Huffington categorized him as a "compassionate conservative" who "speaks with his heart." That's a quality some future GOP nominee will need to win back the White House, said Huffington, who now is a movie producer.

"When you discount the inside hard-ballers, Kemp comes out of this with more pluses than minuses," said Ken Khachigian, Dole's chief California strategist. "He collected chits everywhere he went, campaigning for other candidates.

"He can reach out [to non-Republicans]. But he has to do it in a way that doesn't insult people already in the party, implying they're a bunch of bigots."

*

That brings us to Proposition 209. The GOP--state and national--pumped roughly $3 million into the 209 effort. Therefore, it can claim the measure's passage as a party victory, of sorts.

But the GOP did not reap from 209 what it tried to sow--a wedge issue to bring out conservative voters for Republican candidates. If anything, some said, 209 grew into a wedge issue that helped Democrats by attracting minority voters to the polls.

"It was wasted money that could have been used for getting out the vote," contended Republican analyst Tony Quinn.

The Republican philosophy also was endorsed by voters through other ballot measures, most notably their rejection of Proposition 211. But these triumphs sprang from big business efforts, not the GOP.

A political party exists solely to elect its candidates, and that's why Republicans were crying in their beers at the GOP Victory Gala.

It's very tempting to chalk up their California drubbing to a diabolical desire by voters for divided government. After all, didn't Americans reelect Bill Clinton to protect them from Speaker Gingrich, and retain a Republican Congress to keep check on the Democratic president? Very possibly.

But in California, it seems a stretch to theorize that voters elected a Democratic Legislature to protect them from Gov. Pete Wilson. More likely, the Democratic Party just fielded better candidates, had the best issues and spent its money more wisely.

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