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California Republicans meet, squabble and fail to draw possible national headliners

After losing every statewide election in November, the party appears to be in disarray.

March 19, 2011|By Seema Mehta, Los Angeles Times

The California Republican Party is in disarray. Voters spurned it last fall. It's broke. And no one wants to go to its party.

As Republicans gathered in Sacramento on Friday to regroup after losing every statewide election in November, the convention line-up showed the huge obstacles facing the party as it seeks a path back to power in California.

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Nearly every potential 2012 presidential candidate declined an invitation to speak at the three-day convention. The two top-of-the-ticket Republicans who were supposed to represent the new face of the GOP in November have largely vanished from public view since losing by double digits. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ended his reign in January with approval ratings about as low as ones of the man he replaced in a recall.

There are no obvious candidates to take on Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein in the next major contest, in 2012. And delegates could see two bruising battles that highlight the fault lines that have historically divided the party.

Raphael Sonenshein, a Cal State Fullerton political scientist, noted that this is occurring as Republicans nationwide have been invigorated by victories in the mid-term election that gave them control of the House.

"They're really demoralized," he said of California Republicans. "There was a huge wave in 2010 they didn't really benefit from.

They are hampered by funding: The state Democratic Party had about $6.8 million in the bank in recent weeks, and the California Republican Party had roughly $250,000, according to state and federal financial disclosures.

Outgoing party chairman Ron Nehring said the holdings compare positively to four years ago; after Schwarzenegger's reelection in 2006, the state party was $4.7 million in debt.

Nehring insisted that the state's GOP voters are galvanized and united by their opposition to Gov. Jerry Brown's budget proposal, which includes the extension of several taxes.

"That's certainly a good battle for us," he said.

The timing of the convention has already played a role in the budget debate; the handful of Republican legislators considered most likely to compromise with Brown reportedly want to wait to make a move until after the gathering concludes.

Nehring had promised a strong presence of presidential candidates, writing to delegates that the "the road to the White House begins in California." But only two potential candidates are attending, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton. That contrasts with past years when the upcoming GOP presidential race was hotly contested. The spring 1999 gathering, for example, attracted seven potential presidential candidates.

"A lot of these folks said the timing was just bad for them and 'Please keep us in mind for the fall convention in L.A.,'" said party spokesman Mark Standriff.

Instead of presidential candidates, the convention is likely to focus on two party fights that could split delegates. Party officials are battling with GOP officeholders over how to nominate their standard-bearers in the wake of a ballot initiative that will stop the political parties from holding closed primaries.

Tempers flared Friday over a proposal by Nehring to allow local delegates to nominate legislative and congressional candidates before a primary. During a committee meeting, state Sens. Sam Blakeslee of San Luis Obispo and Bob Dutton of Rancho Cucamonga stormed out.

Blakeslee lashed out at Nehring, calling him "a chairman who lost every seat that could have been in play … now trying to tell us how to conduct ourselves after he is long gone, and stacking the committee to produce that result, is unacceptable, it is not Republican and I suggest he continue without me."

And a conservative faction is pushing a resolution that calls any GOP legislators who support Brown's budget "traitorous Republicans in name only" and pledges to try to recall them.

Both efforts highlight schisms that have long divided the party, pitting conservatives against moderates and purists against pragmatists. These fractures have a history of surfacing during party conventions, as when conservatives burned an effigy of then-Gov. Pete Wilson in 1991, after he signed a tax increase.

GOP strategist Rob Stutzman said such intra-party fighting hurts the chances of future success.

"There can be disagreements about policy, there should be debate about policy, but ultimately sweat, blood and money should be spent against Democrats, not against each other," he said.

seema.mehta@latimes.com

Times staff writer Maeve Reston contributed to this report.

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