Sunday, November 16, 2008

Conservative lawmaker's bid to challenge Boxer meets with skepticism

SACRAMENTO — Orange County conservative Assemblyman Chuck DeVore's decision to challenge Sen. Barbara Boxer for 2010 wasn't exactly what some Republicans had in mind when thinking about revitalizing an image that took a bruising in the just completed Nov. 4 elections.

A darling of the hard-right wing of the party for his positions on abortion, taxes, regulations and energy, critics say the Irvine Republican is tied too closely to past battles already waged and lost. He doesn't do what they need, they say, to expand the party beyond its shrinking base.

For one, his staunch anti-abortion stance is a hurdle that will be difficult, if not impossible, to clear, based on history. No anti-abortion candidate has won a statewide race since 1994. The last anti-abortion U.S. senator from California was George Murphy — and he was appointed in 1965 and lost his only election in 1970.

"If you want to win a statewide race, you have to win over Democrats and independents — and you have to be abortion rights to do that," said Mark Herrick, president of the California Republican League, a group of moderate Republicans based in Palo Alto. "Step one is you gotta be abortion rights. It's ridiculous to talk about anything else until you get past that. Until the Republican Party accepts that brutal fact, discussing any other issue or strategy is pointless."

One Republican consultant who spoke on condition of anonymity said that a Latino or Advertisementa woman who has an ability to raise at least $20 million would be "ideal" in a race against Boxer — rather than an unapologetic, unbowed conservative like DeVore, who is known for his confrontational style on the Assembly floor.

"It would take an unconventional candidate," the consultant said, "who could talk about issues like the environment and health care and jobs and taxes — someone who is at least plausible, and DeVore doesn't meet that standard."

DeVore, 46, was an aerospace executive before joining the Assembly in 2004, where he has been the single-most vocal advocate for more nuclear plants in California. He has not been bashful about introducing controversial legislation, such as a bill to repeal a law that allows undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition fees to attend colleges and universities.

He said he plans to emphasize tax relief and nuclear energy as his top two issues, which he said will resonate with voters looking for a stronger economy that can sustain job growth.

"This election will be a defining election for Republicans," said DeVore. "This is part of an ongoing struggle for what it means to be a Republican, and who wins this battle will determine who defines the party forward. The 2010 election will be important for taking lessons learned in the last eight years and refresh the party with a new focus."

The state Republican party indeed is headed for a discussion on what it takes to win a statewide election, said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and aide to former Gov. Pete Wilson.

"Is it sticking to conservative principles or is it to be more moderate? " he said. "Barbara Boxer is to the left, and sometimes is beyond the left on the partisan spectrum. But when you run an individual that is to the right and beyond, that makes it difficult to argue your opponent is hyper partisan.

"Common sense is that if you want to point out that Barbara Boxer is too far out of the mainstream, you yourself have to be in the mainstream."

It's early — just shy of two years away from the next election — and more Republicans are likely to join the race. If Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger mounts a challenge, he would be Boxer's "biggest nightmare," a political observer said, as a moderate, a worldwide celebrity with a vast personal fortune and ability to raise millions. But, whether he'd be content serving as one of 100 senators — in the minority, no less — getting into the trenches of policy and legislative process is another matter.

DeVore said Schwarzenegger could have a tough time in a closed primary, where partisan activists have been aghast at the governor's leftward turn on taxes and the environment — not to mention his opposition to Proposition 8, the ban on same-sex marriages — and would treasure the chance to pay him back.

"You're darn right it's going to hurt him in the primary," DeVore said.

Rigid requirements for ideological purity, however, have limited Republican opportunities in statewide races. State Sen. Abel Maldonado, R-Santa Maria, for example, probably lost his 2006 primary for state controller to conservative Tony Strickland over a vote he cast in favor of a budget that year. Strickland wound up getting trounced in the general election by Democrat John Chiang.

Now, Maldonado is being touted as a potential challenger to Boxer who appeals to Latinos and moderates. But his experience in the 2006 primary for state controller could deter him from running.

"It's a perpetual dilemma for Republicans," said Larry Gerston, political science professor at San Jose State. "The activists are way to the right of the Republican electorate and the state's electorate, so they often field very conservative candidates who win the primary and go on to be marginalized in the general election. No one's benefitted more for this than Boxer. She's found herself running against extremely conservative candidates to the point that her liberal policies take on a more moderate appearance."

Republican Party leaders dismiss the idea that the GOP brand is tarnished and that a complete makeover is necessary to revive their prospects in the state, saying it's more how candidates communicate their positions.

"We do need to earn the support of Republicans, and also demonstrate an ability to reach out beyond the base of the party to develop a majority," said Ron Nehring, chairman of the state GOP. "Having the policy right is part of it, but communicating the benefit of what you believe in is even more important, to go beyond where you stand and translate it into why do people benefit."

A lot will depend on what the political environment will be in two years, said Jon Fleischman, a top state GOP official and editor of the FlashReport, a conservative blog.

"It all has to do with the job (president-elect Barack) Obama does," he said. "Is it going to be an upswing year for Republicans or a year like this year? If Boxer is playing the role of being out there from the left, pushing Obama, that could help us.

"I think it's a myth that you have to be a moderate to win," Fleischman added. "The reality is that it's not about where you stand on issues, it's about what issues you choose to emphasize."

  • Harper tells party to put ideology aside in face of economic crisis
  • Tories would ease foreign ownership restrictions: Harper
  • Latino Protestants shift toward Democratic Party
  • Open primaries another path to moderation?