AFTER ARNOLD, WILL IT BE ASHBURN?
With Californians now getting used to saying “Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger,” pundits and pols in the Golden State are now focusing on other races for office. There is growing Republican interest in a challenge to Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer next year, for example, and growing hopes that the new governor’s popularity will translate into other GOP gains. One area increasingly considered ripe for a Republican pickup is the 20th U.S. House District (Central Valley), which Democrat Cal Dooley recently announced he is vacating after seven terms.
That any of California’s 53 U.S. House districts could change hands, incumbent or not, seems hard to believe. When Democratic Senate President John Burton and the Democratic majorities in both houses of the legislature wielded the redistricting knife following the census two years ago, they carved out almost completely safe districts for the state’s 33 Democratic and 20 Republican incumbents. Dooley’s 30th District appeared to be no exception to the Burton “carving,” with about 51% of its voters Democratic and 36% Republican, although in registration this was up from the 32% the GOP had two years ago. With or without Dooley, the 30th was thought left firmly in the grip of Democrats.
Or so it appeared.
All of that seemed to change, however, with the recent announcement by Republican State Sen. Roy Ashburn of Bakersfield that he was “seriously considering” a bid for the open district. As the 48-year-old conservative told me, “It’s a tremendous opportunity to serve in a Congress with a Republican majority and help President Bush.”
To be sure, Ashburn lives about a mile outside the 30th District in the neighboring district held by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R.-Calif.). However, he has represented parts of the 30th as an assemblyman from 1996-2002 and as a senator since last year. More significantly, Ashburn was a Kern County supervisor for 12 years before going to the legislature and Kern is a major portion of the 30th District. (Although the Constitution requires House members to be residents of their state but not necessarily of the district they represent, Ashburn said he would make the mile-long move to the 30th if he decides to become a candidate.)
With Dooley’s exodus, Democrats from Washington to Bakersfield have been assembling behind Lisa Quigley, the congressman’s longtime chief of staff, as their ’04 standard-bearer. Congressional staffers have historically had a mixed record of succeeding their bosses, however, and Quigley could face a primary challenge from an established office-holder with deeper local roots. One person increasingly mentioned as a primary opponent is former State Sen. Jim Costa of Fresno. Two years ago, Costa was considered a probable renomination challenger to scandal-tarred Democratic Rep. (1989-2002) Gary Condit in the neighboring, Fresno-based district but he chose not to run after the redistricting map placed his home in Dooley’s district.
To understand where Ashburn comes from politically, one has to know only that he cut his political eyeteeth in the campaigns of the late Bill Ketchum, a fellow Kern County Republican who served in the state assembly from 1966-72 and then in Congress from 1972 until his death in 1978. A plain-spoken, chain-smoking rancher, stalwart conservative Ketchum (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 91%) was a strong supporter of then-Gov. Reagan while in the legislature and then was one of only nine U.S. House members to endorse Reagan over then-President Gerald Ford in the 1976 primary battle. After mentor Ketchum’s death, Ashburn also worked for his more moderate successor, Bill Thomas.
His conservative credentials and record notwithstanding, Ashburn did raise some eyebrows on the right last year when he supported Arnold Schwarzenegger’s statewide initiative to provide tax dollars for after-school programs, a measure designed to help children who have two working parents. “It’s compassionate conservatism,” Ashburn explained to me, adding that he “liked Arnold very much” and had campaigned for the action star during the replacement election this year. Will soon-to-be Gov. Schwarzenegger return the favor and campaign for Ashburn if he runs for Congress in ’04? “I’m almost certain of it,” replied the senator.
After a record six years at the party helm, Susan Weddington resigned last week as Texas Republican chairman. The first woman to chair either major party in the Lone Star State, Weddington explained that she was leaving before her term is up next summer to become president of the non-profit One Star Foundation, whose mission is to promote greater volunteerism.
To be sure, there were some on the right who complained that Weddington was too close to Bush political operative Karl Rove, whom they considered too moderate . But most conservatives liked the vivacious chairman for her spunk. Weddington supported the amendment at the Republican National Committee in 1998 to ban party funds for candidates and office-holders who don’t support a ban on partial-birth abortion and last year-in an unprecedented break with the tradition that party officials remain neutral in primaries-cut a commercial for the conservative nomination opponent to more moderate State Sen. Jeff Wentworth of Bexar County. Completing the job successfully started by her predecessor and fellow conservative Tom Pauken, Weddington was chairman when the GOP won every statewide office as well as majorities in the state legislature for the first time in more than a century. Today, the Lone Star State is the largest of the 50 that can be put in the “reliably Republican” column.
Under party by-laws that are controversial with many Republicans, the chairman and vice chairman must be of different genders. Since Weddington held the chairmanship and Vice Chariman David Barton will retain his position, another woman must be selected by the State Republican Executive Committee to fill the remainder of Weddington’s term until the next state convention in June. The two candidates are SREC member Tina Benkiser of Houston and Gina Parker of Waco, who is legal counsel and former state treasurer of the party. Both are considered conservatives in the mold of Weddington.
Whether the chairman who fills out Weddington’s term runs for a full two-year term next summer is unclear at this time. But many conservatives are urging former Harris County (Houston) GOP Chairman Gary Polland to run for the state chairmanship in June. (Should he win, the party by-laws necessitate a woman vice chairman). HUMAN EVENTS readers and conservatives nationally are well aware of Polland, who got the county party out of the red, led the winning fights for a rollback of city taxes and defeat of a sports arena, oversaw its capture of every countywide office, and insisted that candidates for the technically non-partisan city offices in Houston respond to questionnaires as to where they stand on key issues. Other fans of the swash-buckling former county leader and Houston lawyer, who is well-connected in national conservative circles, have urged him to run for the soon-to-be-open office of national committeeman when incumbent Tim Lambert is termed out in June.
“I’ve been getting a lot of calls about a statewide party office and I’m weighing all my options,” Polland told me.
As they scramble to find a heavyweight contender to challenge Democratic Sen. Blanche Lambert Lincoln next year, Arkansas Republicans were plunged into a crisis they did not need. Amid charges of violating campaign finance laws, State Party Chairman Marty Ryall abruptly resigned last week. Ryall, a former executive director of the party, has denied any wrongdoing but, he explained, he did not want the charges to distract the party from its mission.
State Vice Chairman Gunner DeLay thereupon assumed the chairmanship. A former state senator and cousin of House Republican Leader Tom DeLay (Tex.), stalwart conservative DeLay will serve until December, when the 313-member state committee elects a chairman for a full two-year term.
The sudden change in party leadership came on the heels of announcements by the Razorback State GOP’s “Big Three”-Gov. Mike Huckabee, Lt. Gov. Winthrop Paul Rockefeller, and Homeland Security Deputy Secretary and former Rep. (1996-2001) Asa Hutchinson-that they would not challenge Lincoln (lifetime ACU rating: 21%) in ’04.