Proposition 8 defender Andy Pugno is making another try at winning a seat… (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated…)
SACRAMENTO — Two years ago, Andy Pugno was a celebrity culture warrior on the rise.
He had written the ballot measure banning same-sex marriage in California and then raked in cash from conservative donors to fund an attempt to win a seat in the state Assembly.
But the political ground shifted, and a flood of money from labor unions and gay rights groups crushed his legislative campaign. This year, a federal court overturned the state's gay marriage ban, and national polls now show a majority of Americans have no problem with same-sex marriage.
Undaunted, Pugno is trying again, doubling down as the defender of Proposition 8 in a newly drawn and deeply red Assembly district. If elected, he vows to fight what he characterizes as the relentless efforts of the liberal Legislature to undermine the people's vote against gay marriage.
Pugno points to a 2009 law that requires the state to recognize same-sex marriages that were performed in other states before California's ban and subsequent efforts to redefine the term "marriage" as a civil — not religious — contract.
"The people who exercised their right to amend their Constitution" by passing Proposition 8, he said in an interview, "deserve to be heard and represented inside the state Capitol."
Pugno's candidacy has opened a fissure in the California Republican Party as it struggles with declining membership. Registration in the state now stands at 30%, waning as party leaders have staked claims in divisive battles over immigration and abortion.
According to the Public Policy Institute of California, voters' attitudes have changed since 2008, when they narrowly approved Proposition 8. While same-sex marriage remains divisive, a slim majority of Californians now support it. Support among Republicans jumped 11 points in the last four years, from 23% to 34%, the institute's opinion polls show.
After endorsing Pugno two years ago, the party is now backing incumbent Assemblywoman Beth Gaines (R-Rocklin). One of California's biggest Republican donors, Charles Munger Jr., has formed a political action committee to boost her campaign.
The committee, Spirit of Democracy California, has spent at least $249,221 on political consultants, mail brochures, and TV and radio ads supporting Gaines.
Gaines did not return calls from The Times. But according to her website, she supports traditional marriage, enjoys the endorsement of the Gun Owners of California and has signed a pledge not to vote for tax increases.
"She would offer a broader appeal to voters that would be helpful in improving the Republican Party's brand name and support around the state," said Richard Temple, a spokesman for the committee.
Pugno has fired back with radio ads that target Munger, suggesting he's trying to stifle truly conservative voices. In the spots, an alarm sounds and a narrator implores voters: "Don't let a liberal Bay Area billionaire buy the election for Beth Gaines."
In an interview, Pugno could not name a specific policy issue on which he disagrees with Gaines, though he faulted her for being a "passive" lawmaker. "She casts good votes, but she has not shown any leadership to speak of," he said.
On her website, Gaines, who won a special election to succeed her husband in the Assembly last year, touts her work to curb "frivolous lawsuits" under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Her legislation, which would give businesses a 120-day grace period to comply with violations under the federal law, stalled in committee last month.
The biggest debate in the race has been over ballot designations.
Earlier this year, Pugno sued Gaines to prevent her from describing herself as a "small-business owner" on the June ballot, arguing that it was suspicious that Gaines and her husband incorporated their new insurance business shortly before filing her candidacy papers. He contended that she should have to identify herself to voters as an incumbent lawmaker.
A judge sided with Gaines.
Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target book, which tracks elections, said the contest amounts to a conservative purity test. The outcome, he said, will make little difference in the dynamics of the Legislature.
"Whoever gets elected," he said, "will come to Sacramento and vote as a hardcore fiscal and social conservative."