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A viewpoint by Thomas D. Elias: GOP's down-the-ticket weakness becoming clear

May 22, 2001

The names include Lynne Leach and Keith Olberg and Dean Andal and Bruce McPherson and Scott Baugh and, possibly, Rod Pacheco. There will undoubtedly be several more in the coming few months.

These Republicans all have two things in common: They are either declared candidates or seriously considering running for statewide office and, with the exception of Baugh, their names ring few bells around California.

"Little Leaguers," scoffs Bob Mulholland, consultant to the state Democratic Party. "Baugh, especially, has old baggage that would surely come up if he ran statewide for anything."

But Republicans sound much more optimistic, even though the only declared GOP candidate for governor, Secretary of State Bill Jones, has made few inroads despite an electricity-induced drop in Davis' approval ratings.


California Republican Party Chairman Shawn Steel is plainly correct in noting that what happens at the top of the ticket often affects the outcome of other races down the ballot. But not always. For 16 of the 20 years before 1998, for example, California had lieutenant governors of different parties than the governor.

Now McPherson, a moderate state senator from Santa Cruz who has consistently won in territory currently represented by no other Republican, wants to restore that pattern. And of all today's GOP prospects for secondary statewide office, he seems to have the best shot — mostly because incumbent Democrat Cruz Bustamante muddied his own waters by slipping and uttering the "N-word" in a recent speech. While most African-American leaders are publicly forgiving, no one knows if the rank-and-file black voters any Democrat needs for victory will follow or just leave Bustamante's chads undimpled.

Republicans contemplating runs for the four offices where incumbents are either termed out or mere caretakers — state schools superintendent, controller, insurance commissioner and secretary of state — don't seem to have such promising opportunities.

Take Assemblywoman Lynn Leach of Contra Costa County, the lone elected Republican state or federal officeholder in the entire San Francisco Bay Area. She wants the schools chief job held by the about to be termed-out Democrat Delaine Eastin and Steel says "She has a helluva shot. She's a terrific motivational speaker."

"That's a joke," responds Mulholland. "She may be a good speaker, but there are 9 million voters in this state and almost none of them will hear her."

He rates one likely Democratic candidate, soon-to-be termed-out state Sen. Jack O'Connell of Santa Barbara County, as a likely easy winner if these two match up.

"He's just on the right side of most of the issues," said Mulholland.

Then there's Keith Olberg, a termed-out former ultra-conservative Republican assemblyman from a High Desert district straddling Los Angeles, Inyo and San Bernardino counties. He'd like to be secretary of state, the job now held by Jones, the state's only statewide GOP officeholder. But he'll have strong opposition after a hard Democratic primary fight between former Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi and possibly both Assemblyman Tony Cardenas of Sylmar and March Fong Eu, the woman who held the office through most of the 1970s and '80s. There's cause for doubt that voters would entrust the state's top elections office to someone as plainly ideological as Olberg when known quantities like Garamendi and Eu are available.

And there's Dean Andal, a onetime Republican assemblyman and now a member of the obscure state Board of Equalization. With some fiscal expertise, he might make a credible candidate for controller. But each of the two Democrats who may vie for this job would prove a formidable hurdle.

For one, fellow Board of Equalization member Johann Klehs, a longtime San Francisco Peninsula legislator often viewed as destined for bigger things, figures to run. He could face an intra-party challenge from Steve Wesley, a founder of the eBay Internet auction firm, who would be a rare bird if he makes the race — a self-funded super-wealthy candidate willing to start with something less than a top-of-the-ticket job.

Then consider soon-to-be termed-out Rod Pacheco, the Riverside County assemblyman who angered much of his party's right wing by backing moderates who sought control of the state GOP apparatus. Insiders say the ex-prosecutor will run for attorney general if President Bush doesn't name him U.S. attorney in Los Angeles. But if he does run, he'll be up against incumbent Democrat Bill Lockyer, currently the most popular statewide official.

And look at Baugh, said to be bandying around a bid for insurance commissioner. As a former Republican leader in the Assembly, he's popular in his party, but he carries huge amounts of baggage. Baugh was accused of serious election crimes during the early 1990s and narrowly escaped prosecution.

"All those headlines will surely be resurrected," warns Mulholland. "Besides, after Chuck Quackenbush, it will be a long time before any Republican gets that office."

That's likely, and it raises a major question. If the GOP can seriously consider running a tainted candidate like Baugh for the one office where integrity will be the most central issue, how thin is their talent pool?

Answer: very.

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