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California Democrats close convention with eye on tough races ahead

The party, which has dominated most state elections for a generation, is facing stiff challenges from wealthy Republicans and strong GOP momentum across the nation.

April 19, 2010|By Seema Mehta
  • Carole Lutness, right, is excited to take a self-portrait Saturday with Sen. Barbara Boxer, who, along with Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown in his bid for governor, is facing deep-pocketed Republican opponents.
Carole Lutness, right, is excited to take a self-portrait Saturday with… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)

California Democrats closed their annual convention in Los Angeles on Sunday in a dour frame of mind, with the country's economic troubles -- and resulting voter antagonism -- presenting some unusually sharp challenges ahead of November's midterm elections.

Republicans nationwide have been energized in their opposition to President Obama and are being fueled by the momentum of the "tea party" movement.

"We have to match that enthusiasm," Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) told reporters this weekend.

But in California, where Democrats have controlled state politics for a generation, the party faces the additional problem of having to contend with challenges from wealthy Republicans.

Delegates and party officials were notably worried about the deep pockets of the Republicans who are competing for the chance to take on Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown in the governor's race and Boxer in her reelection contest.

Current polls show both races are competitive.

"The Republicans have more money than God this year, and they think they can buy this election," Assembly Speaker John Pérez told about 1,000 delegates at the Los Angeles Convention Center on Sunday.

"We're going to show them that one thing is more powerful than money in politics, and that's grass-roots Democrats," Pérez said. "When we win this year, it's because of you, because you stood up and fought back, because you knocked on doors and dialed phones, because you registered new voters and engaged the old ones. Let's get to work!"

Despite that enthusiastic entreaty, perhaps a more accurate reflection of the mood was the fact that no one at the convention bothered to invoke Obama's trademark "Fired up, ready to go!" chant until the closing moments Sunday -- after most of the delegates had left.

And, just as the tea party movement has exposed deep schisms in the Republican Party, Democrats saw a battle between their perennially fractious moderate and liberal wings.

That tension played out in a nasty floor fight Sunday, in which liberal Democrats unsuccessfully tried to kill the party's endorsement of eight-term Rep. Jane Harman of Venice, whom they criticized as being too hawkish and too accommodating to President George W. Bush's administration.

Moving forward, the challenge for state Democrats is twofold: how to compete financially against wealthy GOP candidates and how to craft a compelling message.

Delegates said Democrats needed to clarify the benefits of their efforts, such as the healthcare measure's protection of those with preexisting conditions, or the jobs created by the federal stimulus package.

"Democrats have to step up and tell the truth, explain to the people in California what it is we're for," said Janet Cox, a delegate from Berkeley. "Telling them that should work."

Many delegates expressed frustration throughout the weekend that, since Obama entered the White House, Republicans have seemingly controlled the political narrative.

"The problem is, back in the old days, they would shave the truth a little. But now, they just lie. The Democratic Party has to get out and start combating the lies," said Larry Marks, 67, a delegate from Mount Shasta.

He pointed to the rumor, fanned by former GOP vice presidential hopeful Sarah Palin, that Obama's healthcare overhaul would result in the creation of "death panels."

There are several months until the general election -- time for the economy to improve, and time to reach voters, others said.

"November's a long time away," said Joan Buchanan, an assemblywoman from San Ramon.

"If we communicate well and work hard, Democrats will do fine in November," Buchanan said.

Many were optimistic but unconvinced.

"It's always a crapshoot," said Jamie Beutler, a delegate and retired teacher from Placerville. "It's like being an attorney and believing you have the winning case. You never know till the jury's in."

seema.mehta@latimes.com

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