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California GOP faces steep road back

The party has no obvious contenders to challenge Gov. Brown, but the eventual standard-bearer should at least be credible.

February 25, 2013|George Skelton | Capitol Journal
  • Lt. Governor Abel Maldonado, center, and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2010. Maldonado, a moderate Republican, could be a possible GOP gubernatorial candidate.
Lt. Governor Abel Maldonado, center, and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger… (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times )

SACRAMENTO — The Republican Party has become so pathetic in California that it can't even find a candidate to run for governor next year.

Correct that. It isn't even looking. Wouldn't know where to begin.

The party's in no position to recruit anyway. It has little to offer. Certainly not a brand name, not in a state where the GOP steadily has been losing market share. Definitely not money. The party's deep in debt.

Actually, neither major party historically has had to recruit top-of-ticket candidates. They're usually lined up begging, jockeying for position to win the party's nomination.

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Republicans will hold a state convention next weekend in Sacramento. Normally, there'd be a parade of gubernatorial wannabes fighting for the mike and opening up hospitality suites during the silly hours. But not this time.

This convention apparently will have all the excitement of a Saturday at the dump. The big event will be the election of a former Republican legislative leader, Jim Brulte, as the new state chairman.

Brulte wants to rebuild the party from the ground up. That includes recruiting local candidates and building a farm system for major office.

But no one can name a Republican who would have a snowball's chance of beating Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown next year — at least someone who might run.

The name of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice always is tossed out. But everyone concedes that's fantasy. She's committed to education reform, a Brown vulnerability. She loves her life in academia at Stanford, however, and shuns smelly state politics.

Another name is U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, the Republican whip. As a former Assembly GOP leader, he understands Sacramento and perhaps could make it work. But he's not going to surrender his No. 3 party leadership post in Congress.

One big red flag for any Republican is Brown's remarkable strength. He seems practically unbeatable in his expected quest for a record fourth term as governor. (In October, he'll surpass Gov. Earl Warren's record for years served in the office.)

A Field Poll last week showed that Brown's job approval rating among voters has risen to an eye-popping 57%. Moreover, 61% said he "can be trusted to do what is right." And 56% thought he "deserves credit for turning around the state's finances."

But — pointing to some weakness — 57% also said that Brown "advocates too many big-government projects that the state cannot afford" (bullet train). And 47% said he "favors organized labor too much" (public pensions).

So there are some sores for opponents to peck away at. And, after all, he will be 76.

Brown probably can't be bounced from office, however. So forget about trying to find a Republican winner. Just settle for a credible candidate who can pass the laugh test.

Ideally, the candidate would be someone relatively young who runs on the high road — avoiding the gutter — and finishes in position to wage a successful encore race when Brown gets booted by term limits in 2018.

Being a Latino could be a plus, attracting voters from a growing ethnic group that has been repulsed by what it perceives as GOP immigrant bashing.

But who? Remember we're not looking for electability. What's needed is credibility — to carry the colors without embarrassing the party.

That excludes one legislator who has expressed interest, Assemblyman Tim Donnelly of San Bernardino County. He's a former Minuteman who rails against illegal immigration and was placed on probation for trying to bring a loaded firearm onto an airplane. He called it an "honest mistake."

"He'd be a really horrible candidate, worse than no candidate," says Republican analyst Tony Quinn.

There's an obscure non-politician weighing a run for governor as a Republican. He's Neel Kashkari, who oversaw the federal government's bank bailout program and most recently has been an executive at Newport Beach-based Pacific Investment Management Co.

Kashkari is just the sort of chap who should be running for a lower office before trying to become governor of the nation's most complicated state.

But one credible candidate — young and Latino — would be Abel Maldonado, 45, of Santa Maria, a former mayor, legislator and lieutenant governor. He's the son of immigrant parents who built a ranching empire, living the American dream.

Maldonado is a moderate who had the courage to vote in the state Senate for a tax increase, angering party activists. He was appointed lieutenant governor by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, filling a vacancy, then lost to Democrat Gavin Newsom in the 2010 election. Last November, he lost a congressional race to Democratic Rep. Lois Capps.

I'm guessing he'd run for governor with a little encouragement. But he'd need to answer questions about a $4-million family tax dispute with the IRS.

Another potential candidate some talk about is former San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, 62. He also was a police chief and has a saleable record in public office. But he'll soon become head of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce and has told people he's retired from politics.

Three other names out there: San Bernardino County Dist. Atty. Michael A. Ramos, 55, (more likely an attorney general contender); Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, 40, (she's fighting to avoid city bankruptcy); and Orange County Supervisor John Moorlach, 57, (a fiscal watchdog and intriguing).

"What the heck good is a party if it doesn't have a candidate?" Quinn asks. "You can't resurrect a party without a candidate at the top of the ticket arguing serious issues and motivating people to vote."

There are 5.4 million Californians who still call themselves Republicans. Surely one is a respectable party flag bearer.

george.skelton@latimes.com

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