More bad news for California GOP

Rising star Jim Rogan won't challenge Dianne Feinstein.

Topics: Bill Clinton, California, Al Gore,

The shell-shocked California Republican Party was dealt another blow Tuesday, as Rep. James Rogan announced he would not take on U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein in 2000. Rogan, who became a superstar among the party faithful for his role as an impeachment manager in the trial of President Clinton, was the presumptive front-runner for the party’s nomination, and national media were already circling in anticipation of a Rogan-Feinstein matchup.

Rogan’s decision caught party leaders by surprise. In Wednesday’s Los Angeles Times, Rogan cited the cost of the race and family concerns as his reasons for not running. “I’m not sure my two little 6-year-olds can do without a dad at home for the next two years.” Rogan did not say whether he would seek reelection to his congressional seat, which is near the top of the Democratic hit list for 2000.

His quick exit is the latest in a flood of bad news that has plagued the party since last November. Their candidates for U.S. Senate and governor both lost by double-digit margins last fall, and only two Republicans were elected to statewide office. As a result, the Republican bench was severely depleted, and the party has desperately sought someone to lead it out of the wilderness.

Rogan looked like the man. He was the star of February’s California Republican Party convention. The gathering was billed as a convocation of the party’s top candidates for president, all coming to pay homage to California’s 54 electoral votes and March 7 primary date. But as marquee names like Quayle, McCain and Forbes addressed the party faithful from the dais, Rogan drew the limelight, working the floor, signing autographs, posing for photos, and handing out buttons.

“It was as close to a rock star reception as a bunch of Republican activists are capable of,” joked Chris Bertolli, former assistant executive director of the California Republican Party.

Impeachment made Rogan a rising star of the California GOP, which has seen its popularity decline after years of controlling the governorship and, for a while, the state Assembly. Now Democrats run Sacramento, and hold both of the state’s U.S. Senate seats. Ironically, although his role in the Clinton impeachment battle bumped him onto the A-list of potential GOP statewide candidates — admittedly a short list, given the party’s recent drubbing at the polls — it may have doomed his chance to retain his congressional seat in Democratic-leaning Glendale.

Earlier this year, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was shopping poll numbers that showed 37 percent of voters in California’s 27th Congressional District were less likely to vote for Rogan because of his role as a House manager, and only 34 percent of voters were likely to vote for his reelection. Those numbers helped lure state Sen. Adam Schiff, a popular moderate Democrat and former federal prosecutor whose senate district encompasses all of the 27th Congressional District, to carry the party’s torch next fall. It’s possible Rogan may not even run for reelection, but if he does, the race will be one of the most closely watched, and most expensive, in the country next year.

Schiff, who spent more than $1.7 million to win his state Senate seat in 1996, said he has been told by House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo. that his race is near the top of the priority list for congressional Democrats. “You want to make sure when you get into a race like this that you’re going to have national help,” he said. Schiff speculated that, should Rogan stay and run for reelection, his spending will eclipse his 1996 total.

But the political fallout from Rogan’s involvement in the impeachment trial may be a mixed bag. While in the short term it hurt Rogan in his district, it has invigorated the Republican fundraising base, and pulled Rogan, a second-term congressman, from the political ether, making him a superstar among the party faithful. Though he has decided to forego the run against Feinstein, his elevated profile will make him a magnet for Republican donors nationwide. Rogan’s star power still has many Democrats nervous.

“The first time I saw the guy, he just scared the shit out of me, because I realized he could be president,” said Mark Klein, a Los Angeles-based Democratic activist and political coordinator of one of the largest unions in Los Angeles. “He’s one of those guys, you’ve got to put a stake in his heart. He’s like Reagan with brains, and he has the survivability of Nixon.”

For Rogan, the role of polarizing figure is a new one. Though he has shown an ability to be one of the fiercest partisans in Congress, Rogan has been lauded for his skill at forging bipartisan ties throughout his meteoric political ascension. A San Francisco native who was raised on welfare by his mother in San Francisco’s rough and tumble Mission district, Rogan formed an early friendship with Democrat John Burton, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer’s political mentor and brother of the late Democratic Rep. Philip Burton. During his brief, successful political career, Rogan has consistently sounded moderate tones, which helped him get elected in a Democratic-leaning congressional district in years when Republicans elsewhere stumbled.

But any hope of maintaining that image has been lost with his role as a prosecutor in Clinton’s Senate trial. His matchup with presidential advisor Sidney Blumenthal was among the trial’s most dramatic moments.

But impeachment trackers should exercise caution before using Rogan’s problems in his home district as an example of how last year’s scandal may play in the next election cycle. Changing demographics is probably a bigger impediment to Rogan’s retaining his seat than his high profile involvement in impeachment. When he was first elected in 1996, party registration in his district was about even, with a 43-percent-to-42-percent registration edge for Democrats. Increased numbers of Latinos and Pacific Islanders, who are overwhelmingly registering as Democrats, and stepped-up involvement by organized labor on behalf of Democrats, have made the area increasingly hostile toward Republicans. The most recent registration figures show Democrats with a 45-percent-to-38-percent advantage.

Those numbers are likely to get a lot worse for Republicans. With Democrats firmly in control of both houses of the California Legislature, and with a Democrat in the governor’s office, the GOP will be shut out of the upcoming redistricting, after the 2000 census numbers are in. Even if he is reelected in 2000, Rogan’s district will likely be among those that go from competitive to safe Democratic by the next election cycle.

“I don’t think there’s a Republican or a Democrat who thinks that district will last through the next reapportionment,” said Republican Curt Pringle, a former speaker of the California Assembly and one of Rogan’s closest personal friends who was among those urging him to run against Feinstein.

In the wake of Rogan’s departure, attention is focusing on state Insurance Commissioner Charles Quackenbush to run against Feinstein. Millionaire San Diego County Supervisor Bill Horn is also seeking the Republican nomination, and ultra-conservative state Sen. Ray Haynes may toss his hat back into the ring with Rogan’s exit.

“Dianne Feinstein is not the unbeatable superwoman Democrats think she is,” said Jim Camp, director of operations for the California Republican Party.

Though Rogan’s departure may be good news for Dianne Feinstein, her team is taking nothing for granted. In 1994, two-term Congressman Michael Huffington spent more than $27 million of his own money and nearly beat Feinstein. Democratic activists insist they have learned their lesson, and are not taking a potential Rogan candidacy lightly. “It’s hard to believe that anything could be worse than 1994,” campaign consultant Kam Kuwata said. “The senator and I have talked about it, and we agree that if we get complacent, this could be a tough election.”

Jim Camp said that, ultimately, it will be the GOP’s next presidential nominee who turns the California Republican Party around. “There’s obviously been a vacuum of leadership, and that’s on the national level as well,” he said. “California Republicans have been abandoned by the party’s presidential nominees in the last two cycles, and that dragged us down on the rest of the ticket. That’s not going to happen this year. The Republican presidential candidates are going to play in California.”

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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