Where’s the party?

BEVERLY HILLS–Sometime before midnight on election night, it was clear that despite the governor’s easy re-election, the Democratic wave was sweeping over California. Early returns showed conservative darling Tom McClintock ahead of Democrat John Garamendi, results that drew enthusiastic cheers from Republican delegates still rummaging amid the orange, green and white balloons that had dropped after Schwarzenegger’s victory speech.

But as the vote totals filtered in from around the state, it became clear that California was in the midst of another big Democratic year.

By Wednesday morning, Republicans woke up to find themselves in familiar territory. So what is to be made of the results? The two Republican winners were both moderates, and conservatives Tony Strickland and Chuck Poochigian lost by wide margins. But GOP moderate Bruce McPherson lost his race by about the same number of votes as the conservative McClintock. There did not seem to be a clear ideological rhyme or reason to the election results.

So while some Republicans grumble that the governor did not do enough to help fellow Republicans this election year, the party was left to wonder once again what the implications are for their future.

The governor shared his version of what the election results meant with his supporters: “The people have given us a mandate, not for any particular party, but to build a new future, to work together to get things done,” he said in his Tuesday remarks.

But as he spoke, surrounded by Democrats like his wife, Maria Shriver, and his family, it was notable who was not on stage. As Schwarzenegger spoke, McClintock was up in his hotel suite watching election returns. State controller candidate Strickland was not on the stage. And Schwarzenegger did not mention, or even allude, to any other Republicans on the ballot with him.

While Schwarzenegger may not have been arm-in-arm with others on the GOP ticket, state party chairman Duf Sundheim said Schwarzenegger helped the party immensely. “From my perspective, based on what other people told me, this was the best coordinated campaign between the governor and the down-ticket that they had ever seen.

“The governor raised more money than any other candidate for GOTV and other party activities,” he said. Sundheim estimated that “50 to 70 percent of the money we raised came from the governor.”

Sundheim said that in this Democratic year, it just didn’t make sense for Schwarzenegger to embrace other Republicans. “What we saw and felt is that this is not the year you get a bunch of Republicans holding hands on the stage saying, vote for us, we’re Republicans, we’re a team. Part of Gov. Schwarzenegger’s appeal is that he’s not part of that team.”

Some Republicans said Tuesday’s results reflect something more fundamental about how to get elected in California–and it had nothing at all to do with ideology.

“Obviously, the lesson from this election is it pays to have a horrible Democratic opponent and lots of money in the bank,” said Mike Spence, president of the conservative California Republican Assembly.

For Republicans, Tuesday represented their worst fears: Schwarzenegger’s success has not rebuilt the image or the bench of the state Republican Party. With no statewide races in 2008, California Republicans have four years to pick a titular leader.

That has many, by default, looking to Poizner, a man who has a vast personal
fortune, but has not yet served a day in elected office. And in his two campaigns–one for Assembly and the other for insurance commissioner–Poizner has done everything possible to distance himself from partisan labels.

So while Republicans are left to lick their wounds, they must ask themselves once again whether they can choose a moderate to lead their party. But for Poizner, those concerns are far, far off.

“I’ve heard all the speculation, of course, but right now, I’m completely focused on being the best insurance commissioner this state has ever had,” he said Wednesday.

In fact, one of Poizner’s first goals is to make the office he just won as a Republican nonpartisan. Poizner said he will sponsor legislation next year that makes the insurance commissioner a nonpartisan office, just like the state superintendent of public instruction. That change can be made with a two-thirds vote by the Legislature, and may not even require voter approval, Poizner said.

Spence said there’s no reason why Poizner couldn’t win another GOP primary in 2010, if he decides to run for governor. “He already won a closed Republican primary. I think conservatives are going to find there’s more common ground there than many people think,” Spence said. “He made a lot of effort in reaching out to conservatives, and that’s more than I can say for the governor.”

GOP strategist Kevin Spillane, who briefly was involved in Gary Mendoza’s aborted campaign against Poizner in the Republican primary, says that, by default, Poizner is now the Republican to watch.

“Steve Poizner is the de facto nominee for governor in 2010 by virtue of being a moderate, his vast personal wealth and the fact that he is a statewide office holder.” But that could have its drawbacks, said Spillane.

“It puts a giant target on his back. The day he’s sworn in, the Democrats will be looking for ways to target and attack him.”

Poizner or any other moderate–such as HP CEO Carly Fiorina or San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, who are also mentioned as potential statewide candidates–potentially could face problems in a closed GOP primary. But Spillane said that in the current political climate, Republican centrists are likely to have better success, not only at the polls, but also among the party’s donors.

“I think our donor community has more confidence in moderate candidates to win,” he said. “It’s hard, at this point, to see an obvious conservative candidate for governor who’s credible. There just aren’t any people out there like that.”

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