SACRAMENTO — Hoping to find a successor to popular Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and end the decadelong shellacking that most other Republicans have suffered when running for statewide office, a group of GOP leaders and well-heeled donors Wednesday announced plans to stock a "farm team" of candidates they hope will put their party back in power.
The organization includes former Gov. Pete Wilson and a crew of moderate Republican donors from Orange County.
Although they insist that potential candidates will be judged by their quality and electability -- not their ideology -- some conservatives are already critcizing the move as an attempt to undermine their leadership in the party.
California Republicans Aligned for Tomorrow will work with the California Republican Party to find candidates for governor, U.S. Senate and state office seats starting in 2010, when Schwarzenegger terms out of office.
Among the potential gubernatorial candidates courted by the group is former EBay Chief Executive Meg Whitman, the 51-year-old billionaire who is now campaigning for Republican presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain and once served as a fundraiser for his rival, Mitt Romney, according to one source.
(Other Republicans have encouraged Whitman to run as well.)
The executive director, former California Republican Party Chairman Duf Sundheim, said the new group is led by Republicans who represent the party's entire political spectrum.
"We are seeking winners, and winners come in different shapes. There is not a total template that they have to fit," Wilson said during a conference call with reporters Wednesday.
"As governor I supported candidates, whether they were pro-choice or pro-life, if they were strong Republicans and strong candidates. You want people who are attractive [candidates], you want people of principle."
Republican candidates have won only four of 24 possible statewide elections since 1994.
Before the February presidential primary, 33% of the state's voters were registered as Republicans, 43% as Democrats.
However, Wilson -- whom Californians elected twice as governor and twice as a U.S. senator -- said the state is by no means "hopelessly blue." Three of the state's last four governors were Republican.
Wilson and other members of the group are confident that appealing Republican candidates with a message of lower taxes, less government and more personal responsibility can still win election in the state.
Ron Nehring, the current chairman of the state Republican Party, along with Assembly Republican Leader Mike Villines and Senate Republican Leader Dave Cogdill, have thrown their full support behind the group, saying it would "complement" efforts by the state party and its legislative leaders.
But those assurances failed to dispel doubts among the party's right wing, which views the group as an ill-advised effort to circumvent party conservatives.
"It's laughable. They honestly think we Republicans have a problem getting statewide candidates," said Tom Hudson, chairman of the Republican Party in Placer County, one of the state's most conservative areas.
"This is sort of the rhetoric that we're used to hearing from the Jerry Brown wing of the party, who haven't found a Republican candidate they can support in years."
Hudson noted that a number of the Republican group's board members also belong to the New Majority, which was founded primarily by Orange County executives who for years have tried to nudge the party away from social conservatives and their emphasis on issues such as abortion and gun rights.
Also, many members of the new group have close ties to Schwarzenegger, who has complained that the state Republican party is "dying at the box office" because it remains too ideologically conservative on issues including healthcare and global warming.
Vice Chairman Paul Folino, executive chairman of the Emulex Corp. in Costa Mesa and a generous Schwarzenegger supporter, said the party's record in statewide elections is an unmistakable call for action.
"Far too long, Republicans have either not fielded viable candidates or didn't fully prepare or support candidates who could have been competitive in general elections in California," Folino said.
"Hard to believe, but as a result, since 1998 Republicans have won less than 20% of all statewide races."
The state party's fundraising efforts also have languished in the last year.
Larry Dodge, chairman of the group and founder of the banking and insurance firm American Sterling in Orange County, lent the state party $3 million during Schwarzenegger's reelection campaign to help keep the party afloat.
While discussing the status of the loan earlier this year, Dodge sent a letter to the state GOP chairman criticizing the Republican leadership for alienating moderates and independents in the state.
On Wednesday, Dodge said the party needs to take a more businesslike approach and seek out the most talented and qualified candidates, whoever they may be.