California Republicans Trying To Figure Out Road Back To Power : It's All Politics Some California Republicans think that first-time candidates Carly Fiorina (for Senate) and Meg Whitman (for governor) are the party's future. But there are potential problems.
NPR logo California Republicans Trying To Figure Out Road Back To Power

California Republicans Trying To Figure Out Road Back To Power

California Republicans, out of favor with the voters after six declining years of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and undergoing a drought of more than 20 years since their last U.S. Senate victory, held their party convention over the weekend in the desert at Coachella Valley. The idea was to rally the troops and show off their candidates for 2010.

But divisions between moderates and conservatives continue to stand in the way of unity.

There seems little doubt that the party would love to put forward two women for higher office -- governor and the Senate -- two women who are less ideological and more business-oriented. Meg Whitman, the former chief executive of eBay, is choosing the governorship to make her first bid for public office. Carly Fiorina, the ex-Hewlett-Packard chief exec, is making her maiden political effort a run for the Senate seat held by three-term Democrat Barbara Boxer. (Fiorina, who is undergoing treatment for breast cancer, did not attend the weekend convention.)

But what do they stand for? And what conservative principles do they hold? That's the objection we're hearing from the right. And, in a Republican primary, the right is usually the side holding most, if not all, the cards.

It's not that the GOP doesn't want to beat Boxer. Party activists see her an in-your-face liberal, the kind that drives Republicans nuts. And every six years, the GOP always insists that this is the time they will defeat her. But they always come up short.

As California gets more and more blue, Democratic incumbents get harder and harder to beat. As it is, no Democratic senator here has lost since 1976. But even if Boxer is vulnerable, is Fiorina the right candidate to beat her?

Not everyone in the party is convinced. Conservatives may rally behind state Assemblyman Chuck DeVore as their choice for the Senate. And in the race for governor, Whitman faces state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, a strong conservative, in the 2010 primary. (A more liberal third Republican, former Rep. Tom Campbell, is also running.) According to an account of the GOP state convention by Cathleen Decker in the Los Angeles Times, part of the division is ideology; part is simply the risk of backing a first-time candidate. And that goes for Whitman as well as for Fiorina:

For party activists, the newcomers bring the blessings of money but pose multiple questions. Unlike party veterans whose views have been vetted over time, their ideology and loyalty can be suspect. DeVore slighted Fiorina on that front in a Sunday speech, calling into question her support for some federal bail-out measures, as well as for actions taken by Hewlett Packard during her tenure.

There is also the more subjective question of whether a neophyte candidate has what it takes to win. The difficulties of vaulting into politics at a rarefied level were evident in Whitman's rocky exchanges Saturday with reporters.

The Sacramento Bee reported last week that there was no evidence Whitman had registered to vote before 2002, when at 46 she registered as a nonpartisan. Since then, she has skipped four statewide elections, including the 2003 recall that kicked Democratic Gov. Gray Davis out of office. She first registered as a Republican in 2007.

Neither Whitman nor her campaign team disputed the Bee's findings, which contradicted earlier Whitman assertions that she had missed votes only "on several occasions." At a raucous news conference, Whitman responded to repeated questions by saying that she regretted her actions. She refused to explain why she hadn't registered until her mid-40s. ...

Fiorina ... also has a spotty voting record. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that she voted in only five of the 18 elections between 2000 and 2008. Voter officials in Maryland and New Jersey, where she lived before moving to California, told the Chronicle there were no indications she had voted there. ...

Whitman and Fiorina are hoping that voters' anger over the fumbling economy will lead them to embrace non-politicians more heartily. Poizner appeared to be guarding against anti-politician sentiment over the weekend, repeatedly characterizing his own plans as "bold" as if to break free from a bureaucratic stereotype.

But voters may also find refuge in a candidate who already knows how government works. At least that was the hope of Campbell, the former congressman, state legislator and Schwarzenegger administration budget director. He sought to remind Republicans that the Democrat they face in the governor's race will have substantial experience, whether former Gov. Jerry Brown or San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom wins his party's nod.

"On the merits, to have experience and background in the relevant field is, I think, of inestimable value," he said.

An editorial in the Orange County Register flatly said that Fiorina was the "biggest loser" at the convention:

The former Hewlett-Packard CEO was ridiculed going into the convention for her embarrassing Web site, which her campaign launched just prior to the weekend. And things got even worse at the convention when a Rasmussen poll showed [DeVore] performing better in the general election against Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer -- despite Ms. Fiorina's higher name identification and personal wealth.

An interesting account of the GOP weekend -- in FullosseousFlap's Dental Blog (don't ask) -- can be found here.

If 2010 becomes another "it's the economy stupid" election, some Republicans feel that the best way to make the case against Obamanomics is to present business-savvy candidates, such as Whitman and Fiorina. But if they fail to excite the conservative faithful, then it could prove to be an exercise in futility.