GOP - Shooting Itself in Head

Jim Newton
Los Angeles Times
October 13, 2014

As California’s Republican Party contemplates its way out of the political wilderness, most of the public debate has focused on questions of ideology: Can social conservatives stomach moderation on issues such as abortion or gay marriage in exchange for election victories?

That’s a serious question with lasting implications for the party’s identity, but there’s another discussion underway as well: Is the GOP’s best strategy to pursue change from the top down — securing a statewide office or two to reestablish a beachhead in Sacramento — or from the ground up, doing the painstaking work of electing Republicans to local offices in the hopes that those politicians can amass the experience and credibility to someday recapture offices once held by the likes of Ronald Reagan, Earl Warren and Richard Nixon?

Both approaches are in play during this election cycle. Pressing for change from the top, businessman Neel Kashkari is challenging one of the lions of California politics, Gov. Jerry Brown, the longest-serving governor in the state’s history and the only one to hold the office in two separate stretches (and in two different centuries). Kashkari had to fight his way past a far more conservative opponent, and he argues that this election marks an opportunity for the party to ditch some of the habits that have alienated so many California voters. He’s pro-choice, supports same-sex marriage and has doubts about the war on drugs and the harsh sentences it has imposed, particularly on minority offenders.

Despite those unconventional positions for a Republican, a recent Field poll showed that 71% of conservatives supported Kashkari, at least against Brown. “We’re a case study for this approach,” the candidate told me last week as he hustled between campaign stops.

But if Kashkari’s quest to move his party depends on his winning in November, it’s probably doomed. The same poll that showed him performing well with conservatives had him trailing Brown by more than 20 points among those who consider themselves “middle of the road.” And among liberals, the poll had him losing by a laughable 91% to 1%.

If Kashkari wins, he’ll be in a position to argue that he’s charted a new way. If he loses, however, that’s a harder sell. Meanwhile, Ashley Swearengin, the Fresno mayor who’s running for controller, could be a breakout candidate for the party, as could Pete Peterson in the campaign for secretary of state. But they too are trailing in the polls and facing the formidable head wind of the Democrats’ registration advantage.

Parke Skelton, the consultant for Democrat Betty Yee in the controller’s race, points out that the partisan breakdown of June primary voters in that contest was 43% Democratic to 32% Republican. In the general election, it’s likely to notch up a few points in Democrats’ favor, meaning that roughly 45% of the electorate will be Democratic, compared with just 32% Republican.

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