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May 1, 2014
Bill Whalen: Forget governor's race, California GOP should look local to rebuild

Kashkari_announcement.JPG(May 1 - By Bill Whalen, Special to The Bee)

Here's a suggestion for instilling a little life into California's statewide elections, a moribund version of which is soon coming our way: Stock all airliners flying intrastate routes with copies of the secretary of state's official information voter guide, which arrived in mailboxes last weekend.

I can think of two benefits from such a move. First, consider it a public service if it keeps passengers from indulging in frivolous "Sky Mall" shopping (unless you can't live without that $2,250 Bigfoot garden yeti statue). Second, to the extent that it wakes up Californians to the fact that there's an election June 3, hallelujah.

I've read my voter guide, and it was a learning experience. The gubernatorial candidates' statements on pages 24 and 25 are small-print proof of the trouble for Republicans in mounting a credible candidate at the top of the ticket - and may be why Gov. Jerry Brown didn't bother penning a statement of his own.

Neel Kashkari, the self-styled mainstreamer in the field of long-shot hopefuls (endorsed this week by the likes of Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney and my former boss, Pete Wilson), is nowhere to be found in the statement section.

Tim Donnelly, the conservative Assemblyman, did state his case: "I'm a patriot, not a politician." It begs the question: Are holders of public office, in Donnelly's fundamentalist worldview, fundamentally un-American?

And there's Glenn Champ, a Fresno County businessman who professes: "I'm the only candidate that will clean up the mess by holding elected officials accountable to the Constitution that will improve our economy." Never mind that messy stuff about Champ being a registered sex offender. He's actually ahead of Kashkari in a poll released last week. Both trail Donnelly, who's had his own troubles with the law (carrying a loaded gun into Ontario International Airport in 2012).

The inescapable conclusion: If it's success the California GOP seeks in 2014, it's time for the party faithful to stop thinking globally and instead start looking locally. Despite the party's numerical, financial and brand handicaps, there are races to be won down-ticket in regions Republicans once ruled. And it's in those smaller-scale contests - for Congress and the Legislature - where the rebuilding process begins for California Republicans.

Here are two examples of how the party out of power will define progress or setback in this election cycle. On the legislative side, look to Assembly District 16 and an open-seat race where Republican Catharine Baker is expected to survive the top-two primary. The district encompasses parts of Alameda and Contra Costa counties; once upon a time, it sent moderate Republicans to Sacramento. Today, the district has more Democrats than Republicans (about a 7-percentage-point edge in voter registration).

So how do Republicans turn it red - or, this being California, a milder shade of salmon? First, the Democrats have to provide an opening, which might happen given an intraparty squabble over labor loyalties and last year's BART strike. Second, Baker has to hope that voters will notice that she's a departure from the GOP stereotype - she's pro-choice, supports same-sex marriage and is a youthful mother (in her early 40s, which indeed is young by GOP standards given that five of the last six Republican presidential nominees qualified at the time for Social Security benefits).

At the congressional level, the center of attention is about 400 miles south of Sacramento, in the 25th and 26th districts. It's literally Reagan Country - the western edge of the 26th is home to Simi Valley and the 40th president's library and final resting place. And it's a political landscape where Republicans once won elections.

Again, the GOP faces an uphill climb, albeit for different reasons in the two districts. In the 25th, a seat made available by the retirement of House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon, the GOP has a 2.5-percentage-point edge in voter registration. However, there's a contentious primary between Tony Strickland, the establishment's choice (Romney endorsed him last week), and state Sen. Steve Knight, son of the late Pete Knight. The elder Knight authored Proposition 22 and the ban on same-sex marriage.

Voter math isn't as favorable in the coastal 26th District, where Assemblyman Jeff Gorell is the likely November challenger to first-term Democratic Rep. Julia Brownley (voter registration runs about 6 percentage points in favor of Democrats in a district that includes parts of Ventura and Los Angeles counties).

As with Baker's Assembly run up north, it's a matter of Gorell overcoming preconceptions. In March, Democrats launched online attack ads against Gorell portraying him as a cog in the GOP's anti-Obamacare machine.

So how does Gorell knock off the incumbent? He has to play up local concerns such as Point Hueneme and base closings. And, like Baker, he'll have to rely on a healthy dose of biography. Gorell is telegenic, served with Navy intelligence in the Middle East and Afghanistan, and built a bipartisan record during his two terms in Sacramento.

Trouble at the top of the ticket isn't encouraging for a party that would like to make a statewide splash on Election Night. But hard times call for readjusted expectations. Done right, 2014 just might provide California's GOP with some success stories that one day will make their way into that voter guide.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Contact Whalen at whalenoped@gmail.com.