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To survive, state GOP must reinvent itself

ANALYSIS

With proposed new district boundaries, Republicans must recruit more moderate candidates and find common ground with more Californians, experts say.

June 12, 2011|By Michael J. Mishak, Los Angeles Times
  • Senate Minority Leader Bob Dutton of Rancho Cucamonga talks with Sen. Mimi Walters, R-Lake Forest, on the Senate floor in Sacramento.
Senate Minority Leader Bob Dutton of Rancho Cucamonga talks with Sen. Mimi… (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated…)

Reporting from Sacramento — With the unveiling of the state's new political boundaries last week, California Republicans are contemplating their very survival: Without a course correction, they could be headed for the wilderness.

Drawn for the first time by an independent commission instead of Sacramento insiders, the proposed new voting maps suggest the GOP could lose as many as five seats in Congress. Moreover, Democrats may be positioned to win two-thirds of the state Legislature, potentially robbing the minority party of its ability to block tax increases, the last vestige of its governing power in the state Capitol.

Between now and next year's elections, Republicans must scramble to reinvent themselves, recruit more moderate candidates and find common ground with more Californians if they are to be at all relevant in Golden State politics, according to independent experts and partisan analysts alike. Then voters in the considerable number of new swing districts that the maps show could opt to elect moderate Republicans just as easily as centrist Democrats.

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In fact, Democrats could have a smaller registration advantage than they now do in some proposed districts — and would need to win those seats to reach a supermajority in the Legislature. But the stakes are much higher for Republicans, who have been losing ground as hardliners have tightened their grip on the state GOP. Less than a third of California voters, 30.9%, are registered Republicans, down from 39% two decades ago.

Republicans alienated the state's growing Latino population in the 1990s by backing Proposition 187, a ballot measure created to deny most taxpayer-funded services to illegal immigrants. Years of inflammatory rhetoric compounded the damage.

The GOP sought to maintain its numbers in the last redistricting, in 2001, when lawmakers controlled the maps. Republicans cut a deal with Democrats to protect incumbents by cushioning both parties in safe seats across the state. No seats switched party in the next two elections.

Adam Mendelsohn, a GOP strategist who worked to win passage of the new reapportionment process when the transfer of authority appeared on the ballot in 2008, said Republicans who traditionally hugged the party line in safe districts would now have to appeal to moderates, independent voters and disaffected Democrats in more competitive races.

"There really wasn't an impetus for that before," he said. "There's going to be a lot of work that needs to be done to reconnect with those voters, because a lot of those voters have been alienated by Republicans in the last 10 years."

The discontent showed in last year's elections. As Republicans swept statehouses across the nation, in California the party lost the two statewide offices it held and a legislative seat it had controlled for two decades.

"If you take the state of California as a whole, it has become massively Democratic," said Democratic strategist Darry Sragow.

Redistricting protection over the years had emboldened the party's conservative wing. Party officials and rank-and-file activists have been particularly hostile to moderates, cutting off campaign cash, launching recall efforts and working to oust from office those who voted to raise taxes to help balance the state budget.

In 2009, for example, after a cluster of Republicans joined Democrats to pass temporary tax increases in Sacramento, two members lost their leadership posts, another retired in the face of a recall and another lost a bid for statewide office.

But the new maps, which will be further refined before they are ratified in August, seem to have changed the calculus, especially for Republicans such as state Sen. Tom Berryhill of Modesto. The district he now represents was drawn into a majority Democratic area.

Berryhill is one of five senators who have bucked party leadership — and the majority of his GOP colleagues — this year to negotiate with Gov. Jerry Brown on a proposal to renew billions of dollars in expiring tax hikes. The new districts' potential makeup could provide a final push for Republicans and Democrats alike to agree on the taxes and pass a budget as they face the deadline for doing so Wednesday.

"Jerry Brown has been on the 50-yard line, trying to convince the teams to come out of the end zones," said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC and a former GOP operative. The prospect of running before more centrist voters next year "may convince members of both parties to come to the middle of the field."

The pressure from both right and left will be intense over the next year. New election rules allow candidates from all parties to compete in state (not presidential) primaries, with the top two vote-getters in each race advancing to the general election — even if both belong to the same party.

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