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As state Republicans gather in San Diego this weekend for a pre-election mini-convention, the strategic challenge before them couldn't be more plain: They must figure out a way to make the November election in California about Arnold Schwarzenegger instead of George Bush. Considering that it's Bush who will be on the ballot and that the presidential campaign will be getting 24/7 news coverage for the next three months, that would be quite a trick if state Republicans could pull it off.

Considering that U.S. Senate candidate Bill Jones trails incumbent Democrat Barbara Boxer by 15 points and there is at most one competitive race for a seat in the House of Representatives in this state, California Republicans will be intensely focused on trying to make gains in the Legislature. To do that, they will try to tap into the remnants of last year's recall fever and exploit Schwarzenegger's popularity. If they can succeed in focusing voter attention on state issues, there is a chance they could pick up 1 or 2 seats in the state Senate and perhaps as many as 4 in the Assembly.

The problem for Republicans is that in a presidential election year, the race for the presidency sucks all the voter attention away from everything else. The latest Field Poll shows Democrat John Kerry leading Bush by 11 or 12 points (depending on whether Ralph Nader qualifies for the ballot). Equally troubling is evidence that Democrats appear more motivated to vote this year than Republicans. The Field Poll asked respondents whether they believed this year's presidential election is more important than previous elections. Among Democrats, 79 percent believe this year's election is more important. Among Republicans, 63 percent held that opinion. That suggests Democrats will be more strongly motivated come Nov. 2.

The Republicans' challenge will be to persuade a high number of Democrats and independents to split their tickets in other words, to get a high number of Kerry voters to choose Republican candidates for the Legislature. Their best chance to do that is to make the election seem to be about Schwarzenegger. The difference in voter opinion between the Republican governor and the Republican president is striking. Overall, Schwarzenegger is viewed favorably by 57 percent of likely voters, compared to only 40 percent who have a favorable opinion of Bush. Even more striking is the difference among key independent voters 56 percent favorable of Schwarzenegger, 33 percent favorable of Bush.

One advantage Republicans will have is that a large number of the Democrats' ground troops will be recruited out of state to try to help Kerry in Western swing states such as Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico. One Democratic legislative staffer acknowledged the situation to me recently, but framed the issue philosophically: "When it comes down to it," he said, "which you rather win: the Presidency of the United States or a couple of Assembly seats?"

Meanwhile, at the weekend GOP convention Ventura County Assemblyman Tony Strickland will be making known the presence of the new group he will head after he leaves the Legislature, the California Club for Growth. The group announced it will be very visible at the convention, displaying bright green and black signs that will deliver its warning message to any Republicans who might ever consider straying from party orthodoxy. The signs will read: "Raise a Tax, Get the Axe."

95 percent accurate
Over the last 25 presidential elections, Ventura County voters have backed the winner 24 times, or over 95 percent of the time. It is one of only a handful of counties in the nation that has been such a predictable bellwether.
about Timm Herdt
Timm Herdt
The Ventura County Star's Sacramento Bureau Chief Timm Herdt on state issues and politics from Sacramento to Ventura County. He can be contacted at