California Republicans seek roster of statewide candidates
Feb 24, 2012 (The Sacramento Bee - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
As California Republicans gather this weekend for their biannual convention, they will do so with no statewide officeholder and no obvious stable of up-and-comers to compete for one.
Two years after Democrats swept Republicans in statewide races in the 2010 election, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein is unlikely to face a serious challenge from any Republican in her re-election bid this year.
Though it's early, there is almost no noise from Republicans about candidates for the gubernatorial election and other statewide races in 2014.
"This is the barest the cupboard's ever been," said Rob Stutzman, a GOP strategist in Sacramento.
For years the Republican Party in California has been shrinking, its membership growing older and more conservative as the electorate becomes increasingly diverse. The party is particularly beset by its failure to appeal to Latinos, whose proportion of the electorate is expanding.
The disparity between the parties' prospects was nowhere more evident than in San Diego this month, during the California Democratic Party's annual convention.
One of the Democrats' rising stars, Attorney General Kamala Harris, roused delegates at the convention hall, and another, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, partied with them at a rooftop club.
The Republican most frequently mentioned as a future contender for statewide office, meanwhile, delivered his stump speech to about 12 people in a living room across town.
The candidate, Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, is immersed in San Diego's mayoral race. Fletcher is far from certain to win -- his prospects appear to be improving, though he still is trailing in local polls. But comparisons to Pete Wilson, the former assemblyman who went on to become San Diego mayor, a U.S. senator and then governor, are encouraging to many Republicans.
Fletcher, one of two Republican lawmakers who publicly supported Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown's failed bid last year to enact corporate tax changes, is thought moderate enough by some Republican strategists to appeal to independent voters in a statewide election. He is also handsome, ambitious and only 35 years old.
"If he wins the mayorship, then he's immediately on the short list for statewide office for the Republicans," said Stutzman, whose associate is working for Fletcher's campaign.
Candidates like Fletcher, running for elections as local as school board, are necessary to developing the party's prospects for higher office, said party Chairman Tom Del Beccaro.
"We've got to put more into our farm team," he said. "Successful baseball teams don't just court big free agents, they develop their farm team, and we have to do a better job of that."
Still, Del Beccaro said he is "happier about what's coming through on the bench of late than in years past." Reps. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, the House whip, and Darrell Issa, R-Vista, could run for statewide office, he said, though it isn't clear that either politician could be enticed to leave Washington to do so.
Some other candidates Del Beccaro is excited about are less than household names.
"At our convention," he said, "you're going to see Alan Jackson, who's running for district attorney of L.A."
There will also be Jeremy Yamaguchi, the young mayor of Placentia, a small city in Orange County. "Twenty-three years old!" Del Beccaro said. "He'll be there."
Del Beccaro said his plan to support local candidates will be "rolled out this year" and will involve "providing more resources directly to city council level-, school board level-candidates than we've ever done before."
The potential for the effort is unclear. A year ago, Del Beccaro said he would seek to broaden the party's reach by appealing to groups traditionally resistant to the GOP, including independent voters and Latinos. The attempt has yet to produce demonstrable results: Republican voter registration in heavily Democratic California remains in decline, near 30 percent.
"If you take all the groups that Republicans have alienated," said Democratic consultant Bill Carrick, "you get reduced to a group of very conservative voters who live, geographically, in Republican enclaves, and it's just, their capacity to build a statewide coalition is really extremely minimal."
Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and a former speechwriter for Wilson, said Republicans could have benefited in 2010 had Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Republican governor at the time, recruited candidates. He suggested that well-funded candidates such as Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina might have sought lower-level offices before running for governor and U.S. Senate, respectively.
"The way back, it goes back to Nathan Fletcher," Whalen said. "You're going to have to elect people to lower offices. ... The Wilson model is the kind of path that young guys should be looking at."
Fletcher does not rule out running for higher office, nor does he hesitate to associate himself with Wilson. "He was a young mayor of San Diego," Fletcher volunteered. "About the same age."
He suggested in San Diego that he is optimistic about his candidacy. Even in that local effort, however, Fletcher told his audience, "We need a lot of help."
Editor's note: This post has been updated to reflect that an associate of GOP consultant Rob Stutzman is working for Nathan Fletcher's mayoral campaign. Updated at 3:51 p.m. Feb. 24, 2012
Call David Siders, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1215.
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