Bush playing for keeps in California

Allies of the GOP front-runner seize control of the state Republican Party.

Published October 20, 1999 11:32AM (EDT)

With the California Republican Party tangled by infighting and saddled with more than $350,000 in debt, and with GOP prospects damaged by the aftereffects of the anti-immigrant Proposition 187, many experts have expected the Republican presidential nominee to write off the Golden State, as George Bush and Bob Dole did.

But GOP front-runner George W. Bush is serving notice that he intends to fight for the nation's largest state and biggest electoral prize.

Wednesday, in yet another indicator that Bush plans to run a serious campaign in California, loyalists took control of the state party apparatus. With his campaign coffers overflowing, Bush has the luxury of battling for California next fall. At the very least, he can force Democrats to spend money defending a state that has been crucial to their national election strategy throughout the 1990s.

Bush's latest quarterly campaign finance reports were released on Friday. And while the big numbers -- $20.1 million raised, $12.7 million spent, with $37.7 million cash in the bank -- have gotten most of the attention, where Bush is spending his money reveals his strategy for winning the White House. And that strategy clearly includes capturing California, which has more than a fifth of the votes needed to win the presidency.

In all, Bush has spent more than $900,000 in the Golden State, the bulk of which has been spent on fund-raising and media reimbursements. While he has yet to invest in heavy infrastructure in the state, Bush does have a fully operational campaign office, and has been aggressively raising money. Over the past six months Bush has spent nearly twice as much money in California as any of his potential adversaries, Democrat or Republican. Between April 1 and June 30, Bush reported to the Federal Election Commission that he spent $157,000 in the Golden State. Expenditure reports just released by the Bush campaign and analyzed by Salon News show that for the three months ending Sept. 30, Bush pumped another $758,000 into California-based entities.

By comparison, the next-biggest spender in California is Vice President Al Gore, who has spent a total of $496,000. The other contenders are even further down the monetary food chain. Federal Election Commission filings show that Bush's fellow Republican, Elizabeth Dole (who just announced her withdrawal from the race) had spent $85,000. Sen. John McCain spent $48,000. Democratic contender Bill Bradley has spent a total of $72,000.

Bush forces have also staged a bloodless coup within the state Republican Party ranks. State Sen. Jim Brulte, a staunch Bush ally and a proven fund-raiser, resigned his post as Bush's California campaign co-chairman to become finance director of the state party Wednesday. In effect, Brulte's role change means that the California Republican Party and the Bush campaign are one and the same.

"Jim is a friend, a strong supporter. His talents will help strengthen the California Republican Party and pave the way for an aggressive Republican effort to carry California in 2000," Bush said of Brulte's job change. "I appreciate his work on my behalf and hope to work with him again after the primary as the Republican nominee for president."

"Well, it's vitally important, whoever the Republican nominee for president is, that we have a strong, vibrant, growing Republican Party," Brulte said. "I'm confident that the Republican nominee will be George W. Bush, but it's critical that we have a strong party underneath our nominee whoever he may be."

Brulte's switch, which came with the Bush campaign's blessing, means that the Bush troops will now have considerable control over how soft money, which is normally funneled through state parties, is spent in California. Brulte said the state party, currently mired in debt in the neighborhood of $350,000, has already approved a plan called Victory 2000, which sets the fund-raising goal for the state party at $17.6 million.

State party sources said Tom Ross, Brulte's former chief of staff, will soon be named director of the Victory 2000 plan, ensuring that Brulte will have de facto control over how the state party spends all of its money. Typically, the state party uses its resources to organize absentee voter drives, voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts.

"I think this shows that Gov. Bush is very committed to California," one party insider said. "Having a strong Republican Party is one of the elements critical to Gov. Bush's November success, and having a Bush ally in that position shows that [Bush] is serious about carrying California on Nov. 3."

Figuring out exactly how much money Bush is spending in California is somewhat difficult. During the last reporting period, Bush complied with Federal Election Commission regulations, which require candidates to disclose how much they are spending in each state. The latest report doesn't include the state-by-state breakdowns. According to Bush spokeswoman Mindy Tucker, the information is "not something we will be reporting because we are not taking federal matching funds."

Since the campaign wouldn't provide them, Salon News used the Bush campaign's expenditure reports to do an independent calculation. Using a spreadsheet, Salon News culled out all of the payments made by the campaign to entities with California addresses. That method yielded the $758,000 figure. It is possible that some of the money being spent in California is for goods or services that are being delivered or targeted outside of California. But even with that caveat, the California figures appear remarkable, considering how much Bush is spending in other states. Using the same spreadsheet and the same method of culling out addresses, Salon News estimates that over the past three months, the Bush campaign spent about $844,000 in New Hampshire and $858,000 in Iowa, two states with important early primaries. The New Hampshire figures include a $600,000 expense for early media buys in that state.

Margita Thompson, the California communications coordinator for the Bush campaign, refused to comment on the validity of the $758,000 figure, saying she had not seen any breakdowns of the campaign's spending. However, she pointed out that the campaign does not have any California-based consultants and that it has hired four full-time staffers to work in the state. "I have to assume a lot of the spending is for infrastructure for staff and office space," Thompson said. And while she acknowledged that Bush will have a hard time winning California, she said, "The fact that we have a permanent staff here and are organizing the state at this early stage shows we plan to win."

Bush's spending in California appears to confirm what one political pundit predicted earlier this year: Bush will try to carry the South while running very hard in California, a state that the Democrats absolutely must win. A few months ago, Earl Black, a professor of political science at Rice University, said that with Bush as their nominee, the Republicans are "in a position where they can try to execute the kind of Southern strategy that they did in the 1980s with Ronald Reagan. If the Republicans nominate someone who can carry the South from Florida to Texas, then they are in a position where they only need a third of the electoral vote in the rest of the country."

So far, Black's prediction appears to be holding true. Bush is a virtual lock to carry Texas, a state that may hold the keys to the White House. Over the past 75 years -- 19 presidential elections -- only two men have won the presidency without winning Texas. President Clinton did it twice -- losing Texas in 1996 to Sen. Bob Dole, and in 1992 to President George Bush. Richard Nixon also won without Texas in 1968 against Hubert Humphrey. But before Nixon, the last president to lose Texas was Calvin Coolidge, who lost the state to John W. Davis in 1924, the same year Congress granted citizenship to Native Americans.

Bush is also running hard in Florida, another key battleground where his brother, Jeb, is governor. Over the past three months, Bush has spent $181,000 in Florida. Texas and Florida combined account for 20 percent of the total electoral votes needed for victory.

Which brings us back to California. While serving as vice president, Gore has made some five dozen trips to California and he's worked hard to woo voters there, but his spending can't compare to Bush's. Nevertheless, Gore's spokeswoman, Kiki Moore, is upbeat. She points out that the general election is still 13 months away. "This is the beginning of the campaign," she said. "When the time comes, the working families of California will vote for Al Gore and he's going to win it."

And even though the GOP has been hurt by fallout from Prop. 187, the anti-immigrant bill sponsored by former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, Bush is making inroads. A poll taken last month by the Public Policy Institute of California showed that Bush is winning over Latino voters in California, who make up 15 percent of the state's voting population. The poll found that Gore's support among Latinos has dropped from 50 to 39 percent, while Bush's support grew from 16 to 20 percent. More importantly, the poll found that if the 2000 presidential race were held today, Bush would beat Gore, 49 to 44 percent.

The poll results have made Bush's campaign even more confident that it can win California. Shortly after the poll came out, one Bush insider told the Houston Chronicle, "We've got the vast support of Republicans in the congressional delegation. We've got the enthusiastic support of Republican fund-raisers in the state. We get a wild response whenever the governor is out there. We're in control of our destiny."

If Bush does win the state, he'll be the first Republican to do so since his father narrowly beat Michael Dukakis there in 1988. And he'd likely set another precedent, becoming the first son of a president to move into the White House since John Quincy Adams in 1825.

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

MORE FROM Anthony York

By Robert Bryce

Robert Bryce is the managing editor of Energy Tribune. His latest book is Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of "Energy Independence."

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California George W. Bush Immigration Republican Party