GOP leader holds on to hope in a gloomy year

Despite John McCain's rout at California polls in 2008, Mike Spence says it is too soon to write off the party.

December 29, 2008|Michael Finnegan

Mike Spence has devoted nearly two decades to spreading conservative Republican gospel in California, an often thankless task in a state that has been spurning his wing of the party the entire time.

Now, John McCain's rout in California has set a new low for Republicans. So it was more than a mild understatement when Spence recently summed up the plight of California conservatives by saying, "We're at a difficult point."

As leader of a group that battles abortion, gay rights, illegal immigration and taxes, Spence is accustomed to bucking the tide in California. Shrugging off all the evidence to the contrary, he sees better days ahead for conservatives.

"Too many people look short-term," Spence, president of the California Republican Assembly, said over lunch at a restaurant near his West Covina home. "There are elections all the time. Things change."

They do indeed. Californians may display remnants of their Republican-leaning past -- a law-and-order streak and an aversion to taxes, to name a couple. But for a generation, the state has drifted relentlessly from the Republican Party and its shrinking base of conservative true-believers.

"The California Republican Party is dead," election analyst Tony Quinn, himself a Republican, wrote last week on Fox & Hounds Daily, a political blog. "Call the undertaker, haul away the corpse."

Others apply a less severe metaphor: dismal health. Either way, signs of doom abound.

Starkest of all was McCain's loss to Barack Obama in the presidential contest last month by a staggering 3.3 million votes -- or a margin of 61% to 37%. Since 1900, the only Republican nominee for the White House to be trounced by a wider gap in California was Alf Landon, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's challenger in 1936.

Also alarming for conservatives is the hemorrhaging of Republicans from the state's voter rolls, even in the party's longtime strongholds.

When California's election map was last adjusted in 2002, Republicans made up more than half of the voters in 11 of the state's 173 congressional or legislative districts, and Democrats held 66. Now, Republicans constitute a majority in zero, and Democrats hold 57.

Already, many districts drawn specifically to protect solid Republican seats are no longer safe. Take the 44th Congressional District, which stretches from Riverside to San Clemente. Lawmakers carved it out as a conservative bastion, and Republicans have routinely won landslide victories there. Yet the Republican incumbent, Ken Calvert of Corona, squeaked to reelection last month by just two points, making him a ripe target for Democrats in 2010.

Other Republicans survived similar near-miss contests. In one of the more telling races, a Republican nearly lost an Assembly contest in the Palmdale area, casting doubt on the party's longtime dominance in the Antelope Valley.

It could get worse, analysts say. Under Proposition 11, a ballot measure that passed last month, the Legislature lost its power to draw district lines. With demographic trends running so strongly against Republicans, the citizens' commission that will take over the job after the next census will probably draw even fewer safe GOP districts.

Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican consultant and publisher of the California Target Book election guide, described the state GOP as "a white man's party." As California has diversified, he said, the party has failed to adapt.

"They have lost the confidence of the overwhelming majority of minority voters, people of color," Hoffenblum said.

Spence, however, sees opportunities to expand the party's reach. Conservatives can take heart, he said, in the strong support of Latinos and African Americans for Proposition 8, the November ballot measure that banned same-sex marriage.

"There's at least one issue we agree on," he said.

Spence, a former Mormon bishop who serves on the West Covina school board and advises the National Right to Life Committee, also sees Republican resistance to tax increases as attractive to many Californians.

But those glimmers of hope don't easily translate into electoral victory.

Fiscal discipline does in fact resonate with voters, said Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan think tank. But the party's opposition to same-sex marriage puts off many younger Californians as well as upscale moderates, he said. And the party's hard line on illegal immigration has hurt its standing among Latinos, a group that grew from a 7% share of the electorate in 1992 to 18% last month.

"That's a very important issue to Latino voters," Baldassare said.

Still, it would be a mistake to write off the party's chances of mounting a comeback, particularly in statewide races. The last two Republican governors, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Pete Wilson, demonstrated the success of a formula blending moderation on social issues, especially abortion, and conservatism on fiscal matters.

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