California Republicans: "Circular firing squad"

'Circular firing squad' for California Republicans: Abortion foes win big as state GOP tries -- and fails -- to regroup after impeachment.

Published March 2, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- The largest crop yet of presumptive Republican presidential candidates gathered here last weekend at the California Republican Party convention. But the contenders' visit was overshadowed by an internecine battle over the election of party officers, which became a proxy for how Republicans will address the divisive issue of abortion. If California is any kind of a bellwether -- and it usually is -- there's more bad news ahead for the GOP.

The convention's marquee names included former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Family Research Council head Gary Bauer, former Vice President Dan Quayle, millionaire Steve Forbes, New Hampshire Sen. Bob Smith and ultraconservative Alan Keyes (front-runners Elizabeth Dole and George W. Bush were no-shows). But those stars were upstaged by the previously little-known candidates for state party chairman and vice chairman. Moderates made a last-ditch effort to block the conservative heirs-apparent, but when the votes were counted, businessman Nicholas Bavaro lost his bid for chairman to conservative John McGraw, who'd made national news for telling a religious publication that "killing our babies [is the] issue of the century. Compared to that, cutting taxes or any other issue pales."

Thus abortion headlines and tales of division, not reconciliation, dominated the stories coming out of Sacramento throughout the weekend. Many party moderates fear that obsession with divisive social issues will only add to the Republicans' 1996 and 1998 electoral disappointments, and convince swing voters, especially in the growing Latino community, that the party is irrelevant to their future.

California Republicans are trying to rebound from their worst defeat in 40 years. In November, led by the religious conservatives who controlled the internal party hierarchy and both legislative houses, Republicans cringed as right-wing Attorney General Dan Lungren received a 20-point thumping from Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, who became the first Democrat in 20 years to capture the California statehouse. The party also lost ground in both the state Assembly and Senate, and watched liberal U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, believed an easy electoral target, march to victory against Matt Fong.

If the state party was looking for a convention that would begin the process of rehabilitation in the eyes of voters, this was probably not what its leaders would have scripted. One prominent state party leader referred to this weekend's gathering as the Democrats' "wet dream," and GOP consultant Dan Schnur quipped the party was lined up in a "circular firing squad."

"The key question is whether we want to be a governing party, or we want to continue to lose elections the way we did last November by highlighting how out of step we are on social issues," said Bob Larkin, a Southern California activist and a leader among state GOP moderates. Voters in California differ sharply with the party's views on key social issues like gun control and abortion. More than two-thirds of all voters consider themselves pro-choice and for some form of gun control. They opposed the Republicans' impeachment crusade against the president in similar numbers.

But such poll data held little sway over the party faithful, or the hardcore candidates who came to lobby for their support. In his address to delegates, New Hampshire Sen. Bob Smith said "killing children is the central issue facing our nation today, and it needs to be stopped. If we're not going to stand up for the life of unborn children, maybe the Republican Party deserves to fall into the ash bin of history ... and it will, if we don't stand up for life."

Others, like McCain and Alexander, avoided the abortion issue altogether. "Instead of laying down litmus tests and rigid pronouncements, reach out to others with whom we agree," Alexander advised.

Delegates did not appear to take his advice when selecting party leaders. Incoming chairman McGraw has been a lightning rod for criticism from many moderates within the party who want to redirect the party's focus back to economics. In the January issue of San Francisco Faith, he not only urged the party to stick with the abortion issue, but opposed gay rights. McGraw said he was "appalled that Catholic institutions like the Jesuit University of San Francisco openly champion the homosexual agenda."

But California Republican Party officers have rarely been known for their moderate politics. In 1991, conservative activists who have long controlled the state party burned an effigy of Gov. Pete Wilson, a pro-choice centrist, after he signed off on the largest tax increase in state history. One of the organizers of the 1991 anti-Wilson demonstration was John Fleishman, who will serve as the party's executive director under McGraw.

GOP strategist Tony Quinn said the party missed out on a key opportunity to do some housekeeping in the wake of last fall's election debacle. McGraw, along with new party Vice Chairman Shawn Steel, "represents the fiasco of 1998," Quinn said. "This is the leadership team that brought its party to its worst defeat in 40 years. Dan Lungren is the favorite whipping boy of most Republicans [in California], but some of the blame has to go to the party leadership."

Though conservatives remain in control of the state party, California's dynamic political landscape may still alter the message and soften the ideological stand of Republicans in California. One of the most significant changes in recent years is the state's growing Latino population. The party's continuing efforts at damage control among the state's fastest-growing ethnic group could pull the GOP to the center.

Latinos now make up 14 percent of the general electorate in California, up from only 7 percent at the beginning of the decade. Many attribute that bump in participation to Gov. Pete Wilson's 1994 racially charged reelection bid, in which he made illegal immigration the centerpiece of his campaign.

In the wake of Wilson's support for ballot measures to abolish affirmative action and curtail social services to undocumented residents, the party has lost significant support from the burgeoning Latino middle class. Many moderate Latinos left the party during the 1994 campaign, and have been slow in coming back. "The simplest thing in the world to do is count the numbers," said GOP strategist Quinn. "Latinos now make up 14 percent of the electorate, and we can't continue to spot Democrats 10 points out of the gate in every general election. That means a Republican simply cannot win in California without one-third of the state's Latino vote."

Getting that one-third could be an uphill battle. In spite of significant efforts at Latino outreach, Lungren received just 20 percent of the Latino vote in 1998. "Wilson was not able to differentiate between the legals and illegals in the minds of Latinos," Quinn said. "That's something this party needs to recover from."

Among new California voters, more than half of whom are Latino, only one Republican is registered for every three Democrats. Statewide, Republican registration has fallen to a mere 34 percent overall, down from 39 percent in 1992.

The party made one important stride toward changing its anti-Latino image after the election with the elevation of moderate Republican Rod Pacheco to leader of the traditionally very conservative Assembly Republican caucus. Pacheco, now one of four Latino Assembly Republicans and the highest ranking Republican Latino in California, has surfaced as the primary spokesman for legislative Republicans. The necessity for Latino outreach among Republicans, and the climb of Latinos like Pacheco through the party ranks, may do more to moderate the party and its message than any other single trend in California politics.

Pacheco said even Latinos who register Republican "are, I think, more willing to accept that government can be part of the solution rather than simply a problem." This fact has not been lost on many prospective presidential nominees, including a guy in Texas named Bush who received more than 40 percent of the Latino vote in his state, and who has repeatedly summoned Pacheco to Austin to plot California strategy.

Will Latino leaders help the party moderate its more extreme stands?

"I don't think it's necessarily a matter of moderation as much as it is tolerance," said Pacheco spokesman Mike Madrid, a former political director for the state party and now a state party delegate. "We have to end the mentality of 'you're either for us or against us.'"

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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