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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

State Republicans Find Waking Up Is Hard to Do

November 13, 2000|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — The Republican Party has gotten many wake-up calls from California voters in recent elections. But last week's should have bounced it out of bed.

Out of bed with the religious right, the gun worshipers and the polluters.

Any candidate who opposes abortion rights, panders to the gun lobby and doesn't give a rip about the environment might as well not run for a top-of-the-ticket office in California.

Find one of those scarce conservative seats in the Legislature or Congress, get elected, make a lot of noise--and continue to scare off the state's swing voters. Or just stay out of California altogether.

Mushy buzzwords--compassionate conservative, inclusion--even while spending many millions on TV won't cut it in this state.

The Bush-Cheney ticket ran only three points better than Republican Dan Lungren in his stumbling gubernatorial race two years ago. Al Gore beat George W. Bush by 12 points. Al Gore, who didn't even contest Bush here.

OK, granted that Republican U.S. Senate candidate Tom Campbell favored all those things--abortion rights, gun control, the environment--and he lost to Sen. Dianne Feinstein by 20 points. But Campbell also favored treating drug addicts by giving them drugs and enacting a 20% national sales tax. He acted weird--a Republican running to the left of a Democrat.

And, sure, some solid Republican centrists--Rep. Steven Kuykendall of the South Bay, Rep. Brian Bilbray in San Diego County and Assemblyman Jim Cunneen of Silicon Valley--lost congressional races in swing districts. But a good argument can be made that they were tainted by their party.

"Kuykendall is the kind of Republican who is paying the price for the image of the party," says the ousted congressman's campaign strategist, consultant Ray McNally. "We've driven away women, we've driven away Latinos. . . . We've got to get past the notion that we win by driving people away--by driving them into the enemy camp."

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When Republican pros complain about the party's image, they're usually sniping at former Gov. Pete Wilson. He has become the party's scapegoat for aggressively promoting Proposition 187, the anti-illegal immigration initiative.

Never mind that voters passed Prop. 187 by a landslide and would again today, based on polls. And Wilson--who supported abortion rights and ran as a centrist on guns and the environment-- still is the only top-of-the-ticket Republican to have won in California since the 1980s.

Interestingly, both the disparaged Wilson and Proposition 187 got the same share of Latino votes in 1994 as Bush did last Tuesday in California (23%), based on Times exit polls. This despite Bush's tenacious wooing of Latinos.

It's too convenient--and a denial of reality--for Republicans to blame their plight on Proposition 187. True, Wilson offended Latinos with his ugly "They keep coming" TV ad. But bigger factors are at work.

"I tend to discount the 187 phenomenon," says GOP analyst Tony Quinn. "Latinos now have formed the working class. And this new working class is not going to vote Republican."

Anyway, Latinos represented only 13% of the electorate last week, according to The Times poll. A bigger problem for the GOP was women. They accounted for 53% and supported Gore by an 18-point margin; men backed him by just three points.

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Republican pollster Steve Kinney found the impact of abortion and guns on women in a preelection survey. People were asked to rate, on a scale of 1 to 5, the importance of certain issues on their presidential choice.

A majority of women--especially those of child-bearing age--gave abortion a top-rated 5. Women--particularly Democrats--also rated guns a 5.

"I would think two of the things that drove liberals back to Gore from Ralph Nader were abortion and guns," Kinney also says.

Although The Times exit poll found that 61% of California gun owners voted for Bush, they represented only 31% of the electorate. Most people--69%--don't own guns and 62% of them backed Gore.

As for the environment, a recent statewide survey by independent pollster Mark Baldassare found 57% saying that stricter regulations "are worth the [economic] cost."

On election night, Gov. Gray Davis sat in his hotel suite watching the returns and observed: "California is a bridge too far for a candidate who is anti-choice, anti-gun control and anti-environment. If you're on the wrong side of those critical issues, don't bother running."

True, Davis is a biased Democrat. But unlike current Republicans, he's also an expert at winning in California.

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