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GOP eyes a piece of California pie for '08

Strategists are pushing a ballot initiative to slice up the state's 55 electoral votes by congressional district.

August 06, 2007|Dan Morain | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — California GOP strategists, seeking to reshape the electoral map in their party's favor, plan to begin raising money this week for a ballot initiative they hope will help a Republican win the White House in the 2008 election.

As it is, Democrats assume they must win California's electoral votes to win the presidency. California supplies 55 electoral votes, more than 10% of the 538 nationally.

The nascent initiative, aimed at the June 2008 ballot, would change California's winner-take-all system to require that electoral votes be apportioned by congressional district.

With Republicans holding 19 of the state's 53 congressional seats, a GOP candidate theoretically would win at least 19 electoral votes from California. In 2004, President Bush won majorities in 22 congressional districts but lost to Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) statewide, 54% to 44%.

Such a pickup would be about the equivalent of winning Ohio's 20 electoral votes.

"We've hit the mother lode of political interest," said Republican consultant Kevin Eckery, part of the group pushing the Presidential Election Reform Act initiative.

The measure was written by attorney Thomas Hiltachk, whose Sacramento firm represents the California Republican Party. Also backing the initiative is campaign strategist Marty Wilson, a fundraiser last year for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and now for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Neither Schwarzenegger nor any of the presidential candidates has signed on to the effort. Nor is there confirmed financial backing; Eckery said the fundraising to begin this week is aimed at getting $300,000 to $500,000 for polling and other preliminary work before signature-gathering. Collecting the necessary 434,000 signatures could cost $2 million.

Proponents are optimistic that backers of the presidential candidates will ante up. Though there are federal limits to donations to candidates, California law places no bar on the amount donors can spend on initiatives.

"The pitch is pretty straightforward," Eckery said. "We're unlocking 55 electoral votes, and making it so candidates have to compete for them.... Candidates are not going to be able to ignore California. That would benefit all Californians."

Democrats joining the fray include strategist Chris Lehane, a backer of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). Boxer called it "nothing more than an unfair political power grab."

At least one major Clinton donor, Thomas F. Steyer of Farallon Capital Management, a San Francisco-based hedge fund, has told initiative opponents he is prepared to spend money to defeat it.

"This is all about rigging the system, fixing the system, to tilt the electoral college to the Republicans, all under the pretense of being a reform," Lehane said.

The initiative has been submitted to the California attorney general, an initial step before signature-gathering. The measure is relatively simple, taking fewer than four pages.

If the California Election Code is altered to require that electoral votes be counted by congressional district, California would join Maine and Nebraska (which have a combined nine electoral votes). Other states, including nine-vote Colorado and 15-vote North Carolina, are contemplating changes to their systems.

Changing California's system has been discussed for years. In the 2004 campaign, California Republicans approached the Republican National Committee about the idea. But Bush's political team correctly calculated that Bush could win the election without the added boost, according to Rob Stutzman, a Sacramento-based Republican consultant who was involved in the discussions.

dan.morain@latimes.com

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