GOP’s California dreams dashed

October 27, 2012

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Republicans started the year with high hopes for a revival in this reliably blue state.

The party spent millions of dollars working to identify and bring out Republican voters, after a nonpartisan redistricting process created a dozen competitive seats where there was just one before.

But the Golden State isn’t the golden opportunity the GOP thought it was this cycle. Nearly every Republican in California and in D.C. privately concedes the same thing: They could wake up on Nov. 7 having lost every competitive seat in the state.

House Republican leaders, who hoped to be on offense in California, are now playing an expensive game of political defense.

The story of why this is happening is best told in California’s sleepy state capital, which has morphed into the most competitive House media market in the country.

Two Republican incumbents in GOP seats — Reps. Jeff Denham and Dan Lungren — are on the ropes against well-funded Democratic challengers. Despite their own polling — which has shown both men below 50 percent — they refuse to concede the race is truly close.

The American Action Network — which has spent tens of millions of dollars supporting House Republicans — has had to spend roughly $3 million to prop Denham up — their biggest expenditure in the nation. Internal polling has both races near a dead heat.

And because Republicans are on defense in those two seats, they can’t lend help to GOP challenger Kim Vann, a 37-year-old county executive, who is running against liberal Rep. John Garamendi in a barely Democratic district that stretches north of Sacramento. In fact, the media market is so saturated, outside groups are having difficulty finding air time to buy.

A series of missteps, a popular incumbent president, a saturated media market and a population with a large percentage of minorities makes winning seats in this state a tall task for House Republicans.

They also can’t really criticize the health care law, which is more popular here. And incumbents are difficult to dislodge.

In essence, the national party’s entire election playbook is rendered ineffective in California.

To show how uphill the climb is here for Republicans, perhaps their best hope for knocking off a Democrat is in a Stockton-area seat, where Ricky Gill — a 25-year-old Indian American with piles of cash — is trying to paint Rep. Jerry McNerney as a Bay Area liberal who moved into the moderate valley to save his political career. Here’s the problem: President Barack Obama won that district by 16 percent in 2008.

And it’s not only Northern California where Republicans are seeing their fortunes flip. In Palm Springs, Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) is seeing her race tighten. In San Diego, Rep. Brian Billbray’s race is also close.

Republicans counter and say Democrats have made mistakes too. They didn’t find a candidate to run against Republican Rep. Gary Miller in a Democratic seat in the southern part of the state. Republicans are also poised to hold a seat in the northern part of the state, and snatch another in the south.

It’s crucial that Republicans make inroads in California because it’s now the most competitive House landscape in the nation. To build — and sustain — a strong majority in D.C., both parties will have to learn how to win in the state. So far, it’s bedeviled Republicans.

“This state is the road for the Democrats to go back to the majority,” McCarthy said in an interview. “It’s a very competitive state. We’re building a long-term narrative to win seats,” adding that their goal stretches beyond this election cycle.

Republicans face stiff headwinds. They’re 30 percent of the electorate, and have been on a steady decline. They don’t boast a single elected minority in a state where Asian Americans, African-Americans and Latinos are the drivers of the population. The only woman in the Republican delegation is Bono Mack.

“What happened is the Republicans’ complete and utter inability to connect with Latino voters and Asian-American voters in this state,” said Garry South, a Los Angeles area consultant who ran Gray Davis’s campaign for governor. “It’s going to be the death knell for the Republican Party. Far from being able to rebuild itself, the California Republican Party is in danger of becoming just another special interest group.”

Plus, they’re tethered to a national Republican Party that has policies far out of step with the state.

“I always hear people say, ‘We’re going to change the California Republican Party and make it different and do different things.’ But no matter how much money the California Republican Party were to raise and spend, we are stuck with the way the Republican Party is run in Washington,” said Matt Rexroad, a Sacramento GOP consultant who once was a political aide to Minority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). “We might like to be different to make it more palatable here in California, in the larger view of Republican politics, the sorts of things people would advocate for wouldn’t work in the United States.”

A three-day swing through the four districts — stretching from the city of Modesto in the south, to the mountains near Yuba City — shows an alternate universe, so detached from the national political scene that it’s no wonder both parties are befuddled by a competitive California.

Perhaps most surprising for Republicans is how much Denham is struggling against José Hernandez, a former astronaut. The district is solidly Republican, although Obama won by 3 percent.

Denham, according to Republicans here, woke up late to Hernandez’s challenge — although the congressman denies that. When asked why he’ll win, he talks about a state Senate recall race that he won in a more solidly Democratic district.

Denham has sought to employ a two-pronged approach to claw back: He is trying to portray Hernandez as an outsider — he lived in Houston as an astronaut — brought in by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). And he’s talking about Hernandez’s support for a high-speed rail project Denham dubs as too expensive. Denham says he’d rather be “out there hiring teachers and firefighters and cops than spending $100 million on a high-speed rail we can’t afford.” Republicans — outside of Denham — freely admit they’ve been unable to drive Hernandez’s numbers down.

Hernandez said the train is critical for California — and he appreciates Denham talking about his service at NASA, which polls well with the electorate.

“I just like to thank him for reminding folks here at home that I left for 10 years to serve my country as a United States astronaut,” Hernandez said in an interview on the sidelines of a union rally in Modesto. “Yes, I did go up to space and the international space station and came back after serving my country. Back home. That’s the only time I’ve been away from home — when I served for NASA.”

Denham stays away from talking about health care – “that was more of a national issue,” he said, sitting on the back of his pickup truck outside a VFW hall in Ripon.

In the Stockton area, Gill is employing a similar tack: He reminds, on repeat, that McNerney, the Democrat, previously represented a district that includes an eastern part of the Bay Area. McNerney says he’s moved into the new district, 55 percent of which he has represented in the past.

Still, during a visit to the Parker Alley Café in economically depressed Stockton, Gill told the same woman a handful of times that McNerney isn’t one of them.

“We need a valley voice in Congress; we haven’t had that for six years,” he said, later adding, “Do you want an elected representative or someone with their heart in the Bay Area.” The woman then recalled fondly of working with McNerney.

Gill is trying to make inroads with Hispanics and Asian Americans in Stockton. He says so-called Valley-Crats and local farmers are turned off by McNerney’s roots in Pleasanton, a town near Oaklandand poor marks from farming groups. He also blew into a gym in Stockton, speaking to a roomful of children and their parents in near-fluent Spanish — something that he’s done all year, an aide said.

Gill outspent McNerney 3-to-1 for several weeks, hoping to define him as a liberal from near San Francisco. McNerney wants to make people think Gill is young, inexperienced and rich.

“I can’t say more than clichés,” McNerney said. “He’s young; he doesn’t have a lot of experience.”

And Gill retorts: “He’s not good for the district, because he’s really an East Bay, ex-urban guy, running in a central valley district.”

McNerney — and, in fact, many Republicans — don’t understand the theory of Gill’s candidacy, and the nearly $2.5 million of support from the National Republican Congressional Committee. The Democratic registration in the district has gotten better for McNerney.

“I think it was foolish of them to spend so much money on my race when they should’ve been protecting their incumbents,” McNerney said at a Democratic office in a strip mall in Stockton. “Because we’re going to win this, and whoever made that decision is going to have pie on their face. And I’m happy to see that.”

Lungren, a veteran House member, had the misfortune of being defined early by his opponent, Ami Bera. He’s certainly not afraid of incumbency, speaking for 50 minutes at a senior citizen center in Gold River wearing a jacket emblazoned with the House of Representatives logo, while running through his 33-year political career, which included a stint as attorney general and a quixotic run for governor.

“You’ll probably forget this, but I ran for governor,” he said. “A lot of people have forgotten that. I like to say it was a stealth campaign — I didn’t intend it to be, but it ended up being that way.”

Lungren says Bera, a doctor he beat in 2010, is a “blank slate” and is “whatever he has to be” in order to win.

“We knew there would be some pounding, but they had a lot more money than anyone anticipated,” Lungren said of Bera’s advertisements, that paint him as an incumbent who takes advantage of the government.

Bera, after a rally at a Carmichael campaign office, is hopeful that Obama will propel him to victory.

“Look where Lungren starts,” Bera said, with his tie askew and sleeves rolled up. “In the best possible Republican year, 2010, in a much better district, he barely got to 50.1 percent. Better year to be a Democrat running for Congress, worse year for an incumbent running for reelection. The presidential race plays in our favor.”

Vann, a Republican from Arbuckle, is the one directly affected by all of this. She had early troubles raising money, and, as a result, was abandoned by the NRCC and outside groups. Sitting in her office, she is staring at Garamendi, a “40-year politician” with a liberal voting record, frustrated she likely won’t be able to break through.

Here’s a sense of the district: Both Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Democratic wunderkind, Attorney General Kamala Harris couldn’t win it. Garamendi pounded her on TV in the top-two-advance primary, spending nearly $1 million compared with Vann’s measly few hundred thousand.

She’s hoping that a late push on the little bit left of Sacramento TV could help her beat Garamendi. But redistricting has given her hope in the future.

Asked if Garamendi could win without a strong turnout for Obama, she shook her head.

“It would be extremely difficult,” she said. “Extremely difficult.