Sunday, April 12, 2009




Reports on the impending death of the Republican Party - at least in California - have come thick and fast since the election last fall of President Barack Obama, accompanied by continued Democratic dominance of legislative races in this state.

But as Mark Twain might have put it, those obituaries may be a wee bit premature.

For anyone who's been around awhile has seen it all before. You say Republicans have only 29 seats these days in the state Assembly, putting Democrats close to the two-thirds majority they need to pass budgets and raise taxes with no help from the GOP? In the early 1960s, after the landslide defeat of Republican presidential hopeful Barry Goldwater, the GOP had just 27. But about 10 years later, the GOP had a majority in the Assembly.

There is similar talk on a national level, where commentators wonder loudly whether Republicans will ever again enjoy congressional majorities. In California, Democrats talk of taking away eight GOP congressional seats next year.

Of course, Republicans had just 176 seats out of 435 in the House of Representatives after Bill Clinton's election as president in 1992, but won a majority just two years later.

Today the GOP has only one more House seat than in 1993, and there is talk of permanent national minority status. But already there is an emerging likelihood that a Republican will oust New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine later this year. He's a former chairman of the Goldman Sachs investment banking house, and how popular are Wall Street bankers this year?

In California, many suggest that constant infighting will kill the Republican Party's chances for any near-term gains. Several of the so-called "Sacramento Six" GOP legislators who voted for February's budget compromise face possible recalls.

Of course, Democrats have been infighting for decades and it hasn't kept them from winning consistent majorities in the California Legislature and the state's congressional delegation.

"Yes, we can take back Congress in 2010 and we can win the Legislature back next year, too, just like we did in 1978," says Stephen Frank, Republican consultant and former head of the ultra-conservative California Republican Assembly. "All it would take is a taxpayer rebellion next month that would defeat all six of the budget propositions on the ballot. Then we'd probably see the governor and the Legislature try to expand the sales tax to things like doctors and hospitals and veterinarians and legal fees and much more. That's about the only place to go for more revenue, and it could lead to a sustained revolt."

The state Democratic Party's lead campaign advisor, Bob Mulholland, tends to agree.

"Voters in California are never going to go 90 percent with one party," he said. "They like a good fight, so we'll have the Republicans for a long time."

But Mulholland believes Democratic majorities in legislative and congressional elections will continue despite the redistricting reforms of last year's Proposition 11, which take effect after the 2010 Census. For one thing, he notes populations identifying with either party tend to clump together.

"Democrats will continue to do well in districted elections, especially along the coast," he said. But he concedes that Republicans will always be competitive in statewide contests like those for governor or the U.S. Senate, "especially when they have two billionaires running, like right now." He referred to former Silicon Valley moguls Steve Poizner and Meg Whitman, apparently the leading contenders for next year's Republican nomination for governor.

For sure, either would be able to write far bigger campaign checks than the likes of state Attorney Gen. Jerry Brown, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa or Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, the four leading Democratic hopefuls unless U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein opts into in the race.

Democrats, though, like to gloat about voter registration figures showing they gained 934,000 voters from January to October of last year, ending up with 7.68 million adherents, or 44.4 percent of all registrants. By contrast, the GOP gained just 199,000 voters, for a total of 5.43 million, or 31.4 percent. Decline-to-state voters, better known as Independents, increased by 402,000 in the same time span, now making up 19.9 percent of all those registered.

Longtime Democratic consultant Bill Cavala notes in his weblog that when Republican registration in any one district drops near 31 percent, it's hard for the GOP to remain competitive there. But statewide voting patterns are quite different, with voters getting far more exposure to candidates and often casting ballots that deviate from party lines.

Says Frank, "We've been written off before, like after the Goldwater debacle and after the Nixon-Watergate scandal in 1974. The voting registration numbers will mean nothing when people vote in May, and if we get the voter revolt I expect against all the propositions in that election, all bets are off for 2010."

He might just be right.

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