SACRAMENTO — By threatening to cut short the careers of Republican lawmakers who vote to raise taxes, state Senate GOP leader Jim Brulte last week dramatically stepped up his bid to keep his party united through California's fiscal crisis.
Some have questioned whether Brulte meant his threat to be taken literally or simply to send a message to Democrats about Republican resolve. Still, few doubt that he is capable of making good on his demand that Republicans hang together or risk the party's wrath.
For Brulte to threaten retaliation against fellow Republicans was a "huge" development in the tangled politics of the state budget deadlock, especially given his deep involvement in the mechanics of legislative races, said Gale Kaufman, a strategist for Assembly Democrats.
"He knows how much they cost," she said. "He knows how to fund them. He knows who the best consultants are. He is completely -- as we say -- operational. He loves the nitty-gritty."
If, as many argue, Brulte's threat has stiffened the spines of Republicans on taxes, that represents one half of the budget standoff in Sacramento, where legislators headed for home this weekend rather than even attempt to meet Sunday's constitutional deadline.
On the other side of the debate, Democrats continue to resist any efforts to cut more deeply into social programs, preferring tax hikes to further spending cuts.
But it was Brulte's remarks that have caused the greatest stir in recent days, and Republicans are taking him seriously.
That's because the key to Brulte's power over fellow Republicans is campaign money. He and Assembly GOP leader Dave Cox of Fair Oaks, who raise party money together for legislative races, collected and spent $11 million on the 2002 campaign. The GOP gained three seats in the Legislature.
The legislative leaders are barred from spending party money in primaries. But Brulte has reported more than $1 million in his own campaign account, which he can steer to candidates in primaries. Donations are capped by law at $3,200, but Brulte's influence extends beyond his own contributions.
As the Legislature's top Republican, he can drive scores of other donors to support or shun a candidate. His power over political money was on display last week at a Sacramento cafe, where scores of lobbyists paid respects to him with $1,500 campaign checks from clients, including many with a stake in the budget and other state business.
"He can turn money on and turn money off," said former state Republican chairman Shawn Steel. "He has been able to raise more money from [lobbyists] than any other Republican leader in memory."
Brulte, who devotes much of his time to party politics and maintains close ties with the White House, can also dispatch scores of volunteers to campaign against incumbents in a primary.
The revised political map that took effect last year left fewer than half a dozen districts genuinely competitive between Democrats and Republicans, so primaries can determine who wins nearly all of the 120 seats in the Legislature. In a GOP primary, an incumbent who has voted for higher taxes can be open to attack from a rival appealing to conservatives, the party's most dependable voters.
In that context, Brulte's comments served to remind any wavering Republican that political challenges do not always come from the left.
Indeed, the polarization of the Legislature into highly partisan districts is a factor many observers cite as a reason for the impasse over this year's budget and many other matters that come before lawmakers.
But beyond party discipline, the threat serves other purposes. Rob Stutzman, a state Republican Party consultant, said Brulte was trying above all to show Democrats that they can't pass tax hikes "by picking off weak-kneed Republicans."
"By expressing a willingness to go campaign against Republicans that would go AWOL, I think the senator has made his point," Stutzman said. "He's never done this before."
Brulte's threat could also enhance his standing within his party as he charts his political future. Under term limits, he must leave office next year.
More immediately, Brulte could bolster his position in budget talks with Davis and fellow legislative leaders.
Last year, Brulte was undermined by a Republican senator, Maurice Johannessen, who voted for the budget, enabling the Senate to pass it and send it along to the Assembly, effectively wiping out Brulte's power at the bargaining table. Republicans kicked Johannessen out of their caucus, but Davis has put the former senator in charge of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"That was a horrible experience that [Brulte] hasn't forgotten," said lobbyist Robert Naylor, a former state GOP chairman.
Naylor, who joined the crowd of lobbyists last week at Brulte's fund-raiser, called the Senate leader's threat "a very big deal" in an era when incumbents already face the relative insecurity of term limits.