California Republicans: Rebuilding the Bench

When Jim Brulte and Harmeet Dhillon assumed control of the California Republican Party in 2013 times were bleak. The Party was significantly in debt; all of the state-wide offices were held by Democrats; Democrats were on the verge of enjoying super-majorities in the state Senate and Assembly; the conventional wisdom was that Hispanic demographics would make the GOP permanently irrelevant. But, in life nothing is inevitable, and the Republicans did have a few things going for them: lots of people in California have lots of money and at least a few are Republicans; prominent California Republicans in the US Congress – particularly Kevin McCarthy and Darrell Issa – were willing to spend time helping the state party; and the new leadership had a plan to focus on party building rather than policy debates. Results are showing.

By the March 2014 Convention the Party had paid off the debt. In special elections where not much else was happening, Republicans were able to marshall state-wide volunteers and contributors to win a  Senate seat in Fresno with Andy Videk and the mayorship  of San Diego with Kevin Faulconer. Ruben Barrales’ Grow Elect was able to recruit, nurture, and support local-level Hispanic Republican candidates, winning over 50 positions as small city mayors, county supervisors, and other entry-level political positions.

With that background, this week’s primary elections were encouraging. (Full results here.) The headline goes to Democrat Jerry Brown’s 54 % victory, due largely to the public’s understanding that a responsible adult needs to be in charge to prevent the Democratic legislature from doing further damage to California’s balance sheet and economy. But for the first time in awhile there were several encouraging signs for Republicans in a state where the incumbent Democratic stars are all past their normal political expiration dates – Brown (76) whose position would be open in 2018; Diane Feinstein (80) who would be up for election in 2018; Barbara Boxer (73) who would be up in 2016; and Nancy Pelosi (74). Following state tradition, the leading next generation Democrats are San Franciscans, Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Kamilla Harris, but the Republicans are building a bench and may not need to rely on wealthy celebrities to parachute in from outside as did Arnold Schwartznegger in 2003, Meg Whitman in 2010, and Carly Fiorina in 2010. Some headlines:

– Establishment moderate Neel Kashkari’s (19%) victory over Tea Party favorite Tim Donnelly (15%) for the right to compete with Governor Brown in November avoided the risk of a “Todd Akin moment” with an underfunded candidate seeking free publicity and making national news gaffes. Equally important, Kashkari will have a chance to demonstrate to the people of California that he is like the governor – smart; socially moderate; financially conservative; and bald.

Ashley Swearengin, the highly acclaimed mayor of Fresno, won the primary vote for Controller, a position which Republicans have not held since 1975, and will face Jophn Perez, the termed-out leader of the state Assembly. With voters in a mood to support the governor’s plan to pay down debt while building a rainy day fund and showing concern about one-party rule, Mayor Swearengin has some wind at her back.

– LA Times-endorsed Republican Pete Peterson, the director of a public policy think tank at Pepperdine who had a virtual tie for first at 30%, will face off against state Senator Alex Padilla for Secretary of State in another race for a position that would normally be associated with good government and a minimum of partisan positioning. (Cynics will note that state Senator Leland Yee who was indicted for corruption and gun-running and dropped out of the race received 289,000 votes in a testament to the vagaries of democracy.) Pete is a second viable state-wide candidate with a future.

– Most interesting has been Assembly District 16 in the East Bay, where Republican Catharine Baker won with 36% of the vote. In a microcosm of California politics, all of the publicity went to the contest between labor leader Tim Sbranti and pro-business Democrat Steve Glazer with the back story that California politics is now a battle between the two wings of the Democratic Party and those interested in access to government power should avoid Republicans.  Not so fast. Baker is well positioned to win in November – particularly against the labor side of the Democratic party.

When California’s system of open primaries with the top two finishers meeting in the November election was implemented in 2012, there was a question about whether it would increase the options for the voters at the expense of the partisan operatives, driving candidates to the middle.  At least in 2014, it seems to leave some space for young Republicans to bloom.


To understand the Bergdahl – Taliban swap, and its incentive for terrorists to take hostages during the remainder of the Obama administration one should listen closely to the President’s rationale.  At least this mess diverted attention from the Veterans Administration scandal, which diverted attention from the Ukraine petition, which diverted attention from the 160,000 dead in Syria,  which diverted attention from the Benghazi hearings. Where is Jay Carney anyway?