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The Last Thing That California's Republicans Need

February 14, 1999|Sherry Bebitch Jeffe | Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior associate at the School of Politics and Economics at Claremont Graduate University and a political analyst for KCAL-TV

A loss of six GOP congressional seats in the 2000 election would switch control of the House of Representatives to the Democrats. It is not impossible that all the necessary Democratic gains can come from California, with the impeachment of President Bill Clinton acting as the catalyst. Last November, 21 House Republicans, among them six Californians, were elected or reelected with 53% of the vote or less. All backed impeachment. Third-term Rep. Brian P. Bilbray (R-San Diego), who won with only 49% of the vote, spearheads the GOP group.

There already is anecdotal evidence that impeachment will be an issue in some California races. The media have focused on the political risks facing GOP Reps. James E. Rogan (R-Glendale) and Tom Campbell (R-San Jose). Rogan, who emerged as one of the most dogged and vitriolic of the House managers, represents an increasingly Democratic district. Last November, he narrowly defeated, with 50% of the vote, an underfunded Democratic challenger in a race dominated by the impeachment issue. A post-election poll of San Gabriel voters, some of whom are Rogan constituents, indicated that only 24% of them wanted their representatives to vote for impeachment. A recent Democratic poll of Rogan's own 27th district found only 34% of likely voters would reelect him.

Campbell, a moderate, won reelection handily, garnering 60% of the vote in a district whose GOP registration is 37%. But there are early signs of dissatisfaction with the three-term congressman over his impeachment vote. A group of Stanford University professors has organized Republicans Against Campbell, other local GOPers are switching parties and the Democrats are happily helping with "conversion registration days." Even Campbell appears convinced impeachment will be an issue in his next campaign. "The opposition my vote has engendered," he told a newspaper, "is by far the most I've ever received on one vote."

The shaky Republicans share a brand name increasingly unpopular with California voters, who regard the GOP as dominated by mean-spirited, rigidly conservative white males out of step with, and unreflective of the general electorate. That impression cost California Republicans dearly in statewide and legislative races last year.

In his closing statement before the Senate, Rogan acknowledged that fallout from a bitter impeachment battle could further endanger GOP prospects. "The pundits keep telling me that my stand on this issue puts my political fortunes in jeopardy," he mused. "So be it." But the California Republican Party is in real trouble even without the danger of an impeachment backlash. Last November's results starkly highlighted major structural problems that it must overcome to compete here.

First, the state's demographics are changing: There are fewer Anglos and an increasing number of minorities, particularly Latinos. With these population shifts, the electorate's voting patterns are changing. Voter registration for both major parties is down; however, Republican registration has decreased more dramatically. In 1990, 39% of registered Californians were Republicans. By 1998, that percentage had dropped to 35%. Decline-to-state registrations, on the other hand, are increasing.

The rapidly growing Latino electorate is signing up as Democrats or independents, thanks to the legacy of Pete Wilson and his party's antiminority stances. Furthermore, last November's exit polls also showed a decline in Anglo turnout and an increase in Latino and union voters, Democratic stalwarts. Non-Latino white voters backed the Democratic winner, Gray Davis, for governor over Republican contender Dan Lungren. "When a Republican candidate loses the white vote in this state," Lungren pollster Dick Dresner told a recent UC Berkeley conference on the 1998 governor's race, "we've lost our base."

Exit polls also indicated California voters are moving toward the center; fewer identified themselves as conservatives and an increasing number said they are moderates. In surveys, Democrats fared better than Republicans on issues of concern to centrist voters.

Impeachment has underscored this issues disconnect between California's electorate and the Republican Party base, just as it has intensified the cultural war eroding the GOP nationally. But an ever more bitter intraparty battle over abortion rights threatens the political resuscitation of California Republicans more than any other issue.

How much so may become clear when the state GOP meets later this month. An insurgent group of moderates, angered by the Republicans' antiabortion position, is set to challenge the party's proposed slate of conservative officers. A catalyst for the challenge was a newspaper interview in which John McGraw, the party's vice chair and slated leader, said that "the most important issue" facing the party "by far is the abortion issue."

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