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Election Could Be Turning Point for State GOP

A Bush Victory Would Give New Hope to Beleaguered Party


SACRAMENTO — The fate of the republic is not at stake in Tuesday's election--despite all the spin--but the future of the Republican Party in California may well be. At least for this decade.

We should know by Wednesday morning whether the California GOP has staunched the bleeding and begun to fight back--or whether the Democratic Party has become even more dominant.

Already, Democrats dominate politics in California as they do in only one other state: Hawaii. They control the governor's office, both legislative houses, both U.S. Senate seats and the congressional delegation.

Of course, for 35 million Californians, this really isn't about politics--power, patronage and pork. It's about public policy--taxes, the environment, education, health care, crime and punishment, transportation and water. The parties respond differently to each of these issues.

No matter what, Democrat Gray Davis will remain governor. Statewide offices won't be on the ballot until 2002. But voters Tuesday will select one U.S. senator, California's congressional delegation, half the state Senate and the entire Assembly.

They'll also vote on eight state ballot measures--including landmark proposals that would keep nonviolent drug addicts out of jail and funnel them into treatment programs (Proposition 36), provide a $4,000 state voucher for each child who attends private school (Proposition 38), and reduce the vote requirement for local school bond issues from a two-thirds majority to 55% (Proposition 39).

Polls generally have shown voters to be taking the liberal view: for Propositions 36 and 39, and against Proposition 38.

The presidential race--nationally and in California--will have a major impact on state politics, Tuesday and into the future.

If one candidate is running far ahead nationally before polls close here--a la Ronald Reagan in 1980--that could depress the losing party's turnout in California. Conversely, if the race is tight, it could stimulate the turnout and probably benefit Democrats, because ordinarily they're less prone to vote than Republicans.

More important for the long term, if Republican George Bush is elected president, it will infuse the California GOP with new energy and power. Bush could do for California Republicans what Bill Clinton has done for state Democrats: be a wellspring of political money.

And if Bush should happen to pull an upset and carry the state, it would pump new life into the party and persuade some potential GOP candidates that running statewide is not hopeless after all.

But if Democrat Al Gore is elected, California Republicans are likely to fall deeper into the abyss.

As it is, Democrats have a lock on the Legislature. They firmly control the Senate, 25 to 15, and the Assembly, 46 to 32, with one independent and a vacancy.

The consensus is that Republicans will be fortunate to hang on to what they've got. Special interests, attracted by the Democrats' dominance of the state Capitol, have showered the majority party with campaign money. Democrats are expected to outspend Republicans at least 4 to 1.

Democrats even could pick up seats. In the Senate, they need only two more to attain a two-thirds majority, the magic number required to pass money bills without Republican help.

That would further diminish the GOP's fund-raising appeal--and leave it with even less influence over next year's reapportionment, when the Legislature redraws legislative and congressional districts for the next 10 years.

In congressional races, all polls have shown U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein running comfortably ahead of her Republican opponent, Rep. Tom Campbell of San Jose--even with the badly broken leg that has crimped her campaigning.

But control of the U.S. House could be decided in a handful of hotly contested California races.

Two are in L.A. County. One pits two South Bay centrists: Rep. Steven T. Kuykendall (R-Rancho Palos Verdes) against former Rep. Jane Harman (D-Rolling Hills). In the other race, Rep. James E. Rogan (R-Glendale) faces state Sen. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) in a $10-million-plus battle that could shatter the spending record for a House seat.

Political pros will be watching to see how many Latinos turn out and whether their electoral clout begins to match their potential. They're 30% of the population, but accounted for only 7% of the electorate in the March primary, according to The Times' exit poll. They were 13% of the general election vote two years ago.

It will be interesting to see whether Republican efforts to attract Latino votes produce any dividends. Latinos have been voting solidly Democratic since Republican Pete Wilson's boisterous backing of Proposition 187, the 1994 illegal immigration initiative.

Lastly, Davis will be significantly affected by the election, although his name is not on the ballot.

He has risked political prestige by honchoing Proposition 39, the school bonds initiative. Voters either will hand him a glorious victory or an embarrassing defeat.

And if Bush is elected, Davis immediately will be considered a top contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004. Regardless of what he says or how he feels, California's governor will be on every "mentioner's" short list.


Skelton writes the Capitol Journal column from Sacramento.

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