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Republican hopes rise in California

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By George F. Will
Thursday, February 11, 2010

SAN FRANCISCO

Political speculation swirls. Meg Whitman, billionaire former eBay CEO and leading candidate for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in California, supposedly prefers not to run in tandem with Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, who is seeking the Republican Senate nomination to run against the three-term Democrat Barbara Boxer.

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Fiorina, who advised John McCain's presidential campaign, was mentioned as his possible running mate. Whitman supposedly thinks two female former tech tycoons on the ticket would be one too many. Furthermore, Whitman supposedly harbors national ambitions, perhaps as 2012 vice presidential running mate with Mitt Romney, her business mentor and current supporter. If in 2012 Gov. Whitman is wallowing in this state's multiplying disasters, she might not want Fiorina in Washington surrounded by television cameras and unencumbered by executive responsibilities.

So Whitman supposedly persuaded a rival for the gubernatorial nomination -- Tom Campbell, a former congressman of large talents but slender means -- to switch to the Senate race, leaving her opposed only by Steve Poizner, another rich refugee from Silicon Valley. This may have been a bit too clever because Poizner can now make this a binary choice: Who is most conservative?

Campbell leads Fiorina 30 to 25 in the Field Poll, with 39 percent undecided. A third candidate, Chuck DeVore, a state assemblyman from Southern California (Orange County), had just 6 percent, but he might be the nominee.

California's electorate is about 45 percent Democratic, 31 percent Republican, 20 percent "decline to state" and about 5 percent affiliated with minor parties. The June primary will be open to Republicans and "decline to states," but probably about 15 percent of those unaffiliated voters who will participate in the primary will request Republican ballots. So, incandescent conservatives among California's 5.2 million Republicans are apt to determine the Senate nominee. The most conservative candidate is DeVore, 47, an aerospace executive and lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve.

Last year, Campbell supported Proposition 1A, which would have extended for two years the largest state tax increase in U.S. history. This lost 2 to 1; it lost in every county and even in this collectivist city. Campbell also favored increasing the gas tax by 32 cents. Fiorina has cited the "cap-and-trade" legislation of John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) as praiseworthy bipartisanship. DeVore has no such deviations from conservative orthodoxy.

No right-to-life candidate has won statewide since 1998 (for secretary of state). A crusty contributor who has been supporting California Republicans since Richard Nixon in the 1960s recently told DeVore, who is pro-life, that social issues should be peripheral. DeVore replied that when the GOP was born in the 1850s, it resembled the Whig Party except for a large social issue -- slavery, the practice of allowing some people to choose the status of other people. DeVore thinks abortion involves the same practice.

Boxer supports an "absolute right" to abortion -- public funding, partial-birth abortions, no requirement of parental notification, all positions opposed by majorities. But because of California's parlous fiscal condition and other emergencies -- a water shortage aggravated by government solicitude for a supposedly endangered smelt has caused the destruction of tens of thousands of fruit and nut trees -- social issues will, DeVore thinks, lose some saliency.

Boxer is arguably the most liberal senator, and her job approval is less than 50 percent. DeVore thinks voters generally are biased against someone seeking a fourth term -- California has had only three four-term senators -- if there is a credible opponent.

Furthermore, DeVore believes some ballot initiatives this November might help him. If there is another vote on gay marriage, that could energize conservatives. And a referendum on "paycheck protection" (requiring unions to seek members' permission to spend dues on political activities) would cause labor to spend many millions that would thus be unavailable for the Senate contest.

When addressing Tea Party audiences, DeVore asks how many of his listeners have ever been politically active before. Only about 10 percent raise their hands. Conservatives everywhere were dispirited by the Bush administration; California conservatives are doubly demoralized as the failed Schwarzenegger experiment expires. Politics is supposed to be fun, and for California conservatives, voting for DeVore would be the first fun in many a moon.

But would it be futile? California has not elected a Republican senator since 1988 (Pete Wilson). Massachusetts, however, had not elected one since 1972.

georgewill@washpost.com


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