By DAN WALTERS
With the California Democratic Party drifting leftward, Republicans had an opportunity this year to claim the decisive political middle by fielding a slate of centrist candidates for statewide office, led by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Curiously, however, Schwarzenegger did not lift a finger to help moderate Republicans in their duels with conservatives for party nominations — not even two state legislators, state Sen. Abel Maldonado and Assemblyman Keith Richman, who had carried the governor’s water in the Legislature at no small cost to themselves. Maldonado had broken with conservative Republicans to carry Schwarzenegger’s version of a minimum wage bill while Richman had taken a beating from unions for fronting the governor’s public pension reform campaign, but neither got so much as a token endorsement from Schwarzenegger.
Maldonado and Richman lost in the primary to doctrinaire conservatives and both were openly bitter about their party’s blowing an historic opportunity to broaden its appeal.
"Our governor cares about one thing only, and that’s Arnold Schwarzenegger," Maldonado volunteered to a newspaper reporter, only to recant days later, saying, "I apologize to Governor Schwarzenegger for my public comments to the Los Angeles Times. The governor and I have worked together for the past three years on important issues beneficial to California’s Latinos."
"The governor has not taken any active role with regard to moving the party in a more moderate or mainstream direction," Richman told another newspaper. "I don’t think the Republican Party is any closer to becoming a majority than it was six or eight years ago."
The price the GOP will probably pay for shunning Maldonado’s bid for state controller and Richman’s for state treasurer is indicated in a new poll on races below the governorship.
The Republican who defeated Richman, Claude Parrish, and Maldonado’s erstwhile primary foe, Tony Strickland, are running far behind their Democratic rivals in the new Field Poll, as are the conservative candidates for attorney general, Chuck Poochigian, and lieutenant governor, Tom McClintock.
Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger is leading his Democratic challenger, Phil Angelides, and the two moderate Republican hopefuls, Secretary of State Bruce McPherson and insurance commissioner nominee Steve Poizner, are running close enough to win. McPherson’s incumbency — albeit an appointed incumbency — could carry him to a win while Poizner is wealthy enough to finance his own multi-million-dollar campaign against Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, who has a continuing problem with Democratic voters.
The situation is revealing about Schwarzenegger. Clearly, he’s much more interested in his personal political success than in remaking the California Republican Party along more centrist lines, as Maldonado said initially. But it also underscores the reality of California politics: Right-wingers and left-wingers may win nominations but often lose general elections because they cannot appeal to the moderates and independents whose tilt is decisive in any seriously contested race.
The same dynamic that will make it difficult, bordering on the impossible, for Parrish, Strickland, Poochigian and McClintock to win their offices in November is also working against Angelides in his contest with Schwarzenegger. A major party nominee for statewide office can count on party loyalists — conservative Republicans or liberal Democrats — for, at most, around 40 percent of the general election vote. Even if a nominee consolidates that base, he or she still must attract at least half of the independent voters to win.
Moderate candidates have much more appeal to those independents than do ideologues. That’s why Schwarzenegger, despite seeing his popularity plunge last year, is now leading Angelides, who hewed to a very liberal line during the primary campaign and hasn’t figured out how to slide into the middle — if, indeed, he wants to do so, which is uncertain.
The last time the Republicans fielded a moderate slate for statewide office, in 1994, they won half of them and scared Democratic leaders. That won’t happen this year.
(Contact Dan Walters at dwalters(at)sacbee.com.)