Sunday, December 13, 2009




It’s the holiday season, so optimism is in the air, not least among California Republicans. As they head into next year’s election, they sound like they have before one major election after another since 1992. Trouble is, little of that earlier happy talk ever materialized.

Candidates from George H.W. Bush and his son George W. Bush to John Seymour, John McCain, Matt Fong, Bill Simon, Bill Jones, Michael Huffington and Dan Lungren have predicted they would run strongly against Democrats here, and then did not.

It is no surprise, therefore, that Republicans today are sounding optimistic about their chances of hanging onto the governor’s office wrested away from the Democrats by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 2003 recall election that ousted Gray Davis.

National Republican pundits like George Will look at the California field and see wealthy candidates like former eBay CEO Meg Whitman and Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner as potential national saviors for a party that now has few prospective presidential candidates.

“The Republican revival nationally might begin here next year,” Will wrote after a visit with Whitman. Of course, Will also predicted the first President Bush would carry California against Bill Clinton in 1992 and that Barbara Boxer would never be elected to the Senate (where she’s now seeking a fourth term). Just for two examples of the national commentator’s California expertise.

But Will is not alone this time. Some Republicans hope an attempt to repeal Proposition 8’s ban on same sex marriages will make next fall’s ballot and play a similar role to the gun control initiative that brought out conservative voters in 1982, helping defeat favored Democrat Tom Bradley.

“This will be a good GOP year,” opines Stephen Frank, a former head of the conservative California Republican Assembly who has helped Poizner. “With Proposition 8 revisited, it could be a blowout for the GOP.”

And Fox News commentator Fred Barnes, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard magazine, is as smitten by Whitman as Will. “Everything is going to change after the 2010 election, when all these new faces come into the (national) Republican Party,” Barnes wrote. Whitman, he added, could be the key “as governor of the biggest state, a brainy, conservative, accomplished woman at the top of the Republican ladder.”

Never mind that she didn’t care enough about public affairs to vote in about three-fourths of the elections held during the last 10 years. Or that she wasn’t even a registered Republican until 2007.

The GOP talk this year echoes 2000, when George W. Bush promised he would “contest California to the very end,” adding that “Our chances are very good out there.”

But he never seriously contested California, losing by a wide margin to Democrat Al Gore after visiting the state only once that fall and failing to air a single TV commercial here.

It was the same last year. McCain swore he’d fight hard in California, believing his moderate stances on immigration amnesty and global climate change made him the ideal candidate to move this state back into the Republican presidential column for the first time since 1988. McCain then gave up on California even earlier than either Bush.

Now Republicans are licking their chops over the prospect of running against Attorney General Jerry Brown, who supports same sex marriage and some environmental measures even tougher than what Schwarzenegger has okayed.

They’re trying to revive the “Gov. Moonbeam” sobriquet applied to Brown by the late Chicago columnist Mike Royko after Brown advocated having a state-owned communications satellite. Royko later recanted and apologized to Brown, and his satellite notion no longer looks goofy. If it had happened, prices for the Internet and other services might be much lower today.

What’s more, California is not the same place it was in 1982, or even 1990, the last time a Republican governor was elected to a first term through the normal process involving a contested primary election. It is a much “bluer” place, if only because more than 2.5 million Latinos have become citizens here in the last 14 years, most registering as Democrats.

But Republicans still have a chance. They vote in far higher proportions than Democratic voter blocs like Latinos and African Americans. When they’re excited about an issue, as they might be about defending Proposition 8, they become even more determined to vote.

Still, Scharzenegger is the only Republican who has won a top-of-the-ticket race in this state since 1996 – and he didn’t have to run in a primary before winning the office in 2003.

So Republicans can lick their chops over 2010 all they like, but they will have to prove much more than they have so far if anyone is to take their boasts seriously. For recent history shows such talk is cheap in California.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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