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ORANGE COUNTY VOICES: THE STATE OF THE GOP

Local Party Still Packs Power

Setbacks in a 'Small-Talk' Election Shouldn't Faze Leadership

November 15, 1998|HUGH HEWITT | Hugh Hewitt, a Republican, is a law professor at Chapman University. His most recent book is "The Embarrassed Believer."

Local GOP chieftain Tom Fuentes has built the most respected and successful party organization in the nation. Former Vice President Dan Quayle spent election night in Orange County for a reason: He and all other presidential contenders know that Orange County and its GOP organization are vital to winning the presidential nomination and election in 2000.

Republicans do not sweep elections that lack central themes. The Cold War defined and drove the last three presidential wins for the party. Of course, the GOP sweep of 1994 was powered by the "Contract With America" and the first and only glimpse of Clintonian big government in Hillary's health care colossus. But the disappointing campaigns of 1992, 1996 and Nov. 3 underscore the obvious: "Small-talk" elections tilt Democratic.

A small-talk election encourages the voters to think of politics as entertainment, a series of contests the results of which are hardly significant to their lives. Personalities dominate. Special interests such as organized labor and trial lawyers always shove huge amounts of cash into the fray. Counteracting this cash requires an enthusiastic party base of movement conservatives. Not even Orange County Republicans can get fired up if the national party thinks parceling up a huge surplus among competing bureaucracies makes good politics.

Locally, the GOP took a couple of hits. Losing Rob Hurtt from the state Senate is a stunner. Jim Morrissey worked hard, but this was a year when the tide ran so strongly as to take every marginal district to the other side. Curt Pringle's on the sidelines, but only for a time.

Not a horrible night, but a disappointing one. The usual whining from the never-influential caucus is loudly arguing that Fuentes and his team should be replaced. The only folks who ever pay attention are Democrats and political reporters whose Rolodexes haven't changed from the 1980s. There is not a serious national figure or local elected official who wants to shift either the leadership or the agenda of the Orange County GOP to the left.

There is, however, trouble ahead. Some Democrats have argued that Fuentes and the GOP made a mistake in targeting Anaheim Mayor Tom Daly. Here the national trend triumphed. Daly's a great candidate, and he'll no doubt find a nicely tailored congressional or state Senate district delivered by redistricting in 2000. Ditto Irvine's Larry Agran. Fuentes and his leadership colleagues at the Lincoln Club saw clearly the lay of the land four years out and tried to keep the opposition from building a bench. It didn't work. But only the politically dense or self-serving would argue with the strategy.

The local GOP moved long ago to address the two issues most crucial to its success over the next two election cycles: (1) minority voter outreach and (2) opposition to the airport at El Toro.

On the latter point, the discussion over El Toro reopened the Irvine City Council to Agran. Many now suspect that it is crucial for the local GOP to fashion and sell the compromise that John Wayne will stay small and El Toro will remain empty. Endless infighting among otherwise like-minded Republican voters threatens a much more important agenda than transportation. Since Daly is pro-airport and Agran is anti-airport, the GOP may conclude that it's time to let Democrat activists reap the results of that deep division.

As for ethnic outreach, Fuentes' efforts over his dozen years have built the most impressive such structure in the California GOP. Much of that structure was injured in the Dornan controversy, but much remains. That which was damaged can be repaired. Recruitment of candidates from minority communities remains a high priority as the party continues to recover, especially from the legacy of Proposition 187.

There is good news as well. Strong new Republicans have been sent north to the Assembly in Ken Maddox and Pat Bates. Future strong candidates such as businessman and car dealer John Campbell emerged as energized participants in the local party. And the GOP holds five of six county congressional seats, three of four state Senate seats, and six of seven state Assembly seats. All five supervisors are Republicans, and there is not one registered Democrat in any countywide nonpartisan office. Orange County remains the envy of every county party in the state and perhaps even the country. The credit for that stature belongs to Fuentes and his leadership team.

It's always the same story for the GOP at the local, state and national level: Stick to the themes of liberty and low taxes, military preparedness and personal responsibility, and the party will prosper. Drift into debates over how better to spend the taxpayers' dollars, and vote totals fall precipitously.

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