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GOP Candidates Face Uphill Battle for Statewide Offices

Politics: Observers say Republicans need a longshot win by gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon to avoid a Democratic sweep.

March 25, 2002|MIGUEL BUSTILLO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — From attorney general to state treasurer, Republican candidates are clear underdogs in every down-ballot contest this fall, a predicament that reflects the flagging political fortunes of the California GOP in recent years.

The Republicans' longshot status is the logical consequence of prior election defeats. The California Republican Party lost all but two statewide races four years ago, and one of its winners, former Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush, later resigned amid a widening corruption scandal. The other, Secretary of State Bill Jones, is being forced out due to term limits, leaving Republicans with no incumbents running for reelection this fall.

The result for Republicans is a perilously thin lineup of candidates for California's statewide offices this November--a situation that exposes the GOP to the threat of a shutout at the hands of Democrats for the first time in more than a century.

For Republicans, the pain of such a lopsided defeat this fall could sting well into the future. The down-ticket offices have historically been a breeding ground for future governors, and being swept out of all those positions would leave Republicans with no "bench" whatsoever.

Democratic Gov. Gray Davis served as controller and lieutenant governor before winning the state's highest office in 1998. Former GOP Gov. George Deukmejian, who served from 1982 to 1990, was elected to that post after having been attorney general and building a record there.

With eight months left between this month's primaries and the November general election--an eternity in politics--countless events could reshape candidates' fortunes. But for now, many political experts and consultants say the GOP's best hope of avoiding a shutout begins and ends at the top of the ticket, with Bill Simon Jr.'s uphill campaign to unseat Davis.

Even more so than usual, Republicans need a commanding win by Simon to raise the profiles of other GOP candidates and help carry them to victory. Simon stunned the state's political establishment by crushing former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan in the Republican primary.

If Simon runs strong in November, Republicans have a chance to ride the coattails of the conservative financier and win a number of statewide positions. But if he does not, as some of the down-ballot candidates acknowledge, they may lose them all.

"If Davis wins, I will probably lose," state Sen. Richard Ackerman (R-Irvine), the only Republican who campaigned for attorney general, recently told The Times.

The last time Democrats held all the statewide offices was 1883-87, according to the California State Archives.

In sharp contrast to the Republicans, Democrats field three powerful and well-funded incumbents besides Davis: Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, Treasurer Phil Angelides and Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, all of whom hold gubernatorial aspirations. And John Garamendi, the Democratic candidate for insurance commissioner, brings near-incumbent status, having held the job before Quackenbush.

Democrats already hold both of California's U.S. Senate seats--the place Republicans found their last governor, Pete Wilson--and most big-city mayor's offices in the state, including Los Angeles, now that Democrat James K. Hahn has replaced Riordan.

As a result, Republicans canvassing for statewide candidates have had to look for recruits in the Legislature, where their party is a minority in both houses and lawmakers thus have few accomplishments on which to campaign.

Further complicating their prospects, several of the Republican candidates in the down-ballot races are Riordan disciples with similarly moderate views on social issues that stand apart from the more conservative Simon. They were counting on Riordan's support during their campaigns, and his defeat left them adrift.

Now that they must hitch their wagons to Simon, Republicans of all stripes are making a bid for solidarity from the top of their ticket on down.

Simon met with other statewide candidates during a dinner in Sacramento this month, and they agreed to emphasize issues that are part of Simon's platform, said Simon's communications director, James Fisfis. Mindful that Davis will probably try to use the wedge issues of abortion and immigration to portray Simon as a right-wing extremist, the candidates vowed to stand together and talk about the subjects on which they agree, such as fiscal conservatism.

The next day, Simon met in private with Republican legislators in the Senate and Assembly--most of whom endorsed either Riordan or Jones--and emerged with a similar consensus.

"Now it's a new day," a smiling Simon said during a news conference afterward, dismissing the lawmakers' previous support for his rivals. "The people have spoken. Now it's time that we unite."

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