Report From California

Indian Wells, Cal.—As more than 1000 delegates, political activists, and reporters arrived for the State Republican Convention here September 25-27, talk was almost exclusively on the 2010 races for governor and U.S. Senator from California.

This is the state commonly referred to as the “Left Coast,” which has not elected a Republican senator since 1988 and where liberal GOPer Arnold Schwarzenegger captured the governorship in 2003 only in an unusual contest in which his predecessor was recalled as voters were simultaneously choosing a new governor.

But, perhaps surprisingly, Golden State GOPers feel upbeat about holding onto the governorship from which Schwarzenegger is termed out next year, and in defeating three-term leftist Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Cal.). Some fresh developments in those and other political stories were. . .

DeVore Wins Conservative Hearts, But Can He Beat Fiorina?

As U.S. Senate candidate Chuck DeVore prepared to unveil his elaborate convention operation last week, the stalwart conservative and three-term state assemblyman got some surprise good news. According to a just-completed Rasmussen Poll, Boxer defeats DeVore among likely voters statewide by a margin of 46% to 37%–actually performing better than first-time candidate and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorna, whom Rasmussen showed trailing Boxer 49% to 39%.

If the nomination against Boxer were decided by the conventioneers in Indian Wells, the easily winner would be the 47-year-old DeVore. The onetime Reagan Administration official and U.S. Army Reserve lieutenant colonel has been in the forefront of every modern conservative cause in California—from permitting offshore oil drilling (unsuccessful so far) to stopping Schwarzenegger’s proposed tax increased increases (successful) to his support for the initiative to overturn court-ordered same sex marriage (successful).

Burnishing DeVore’s credentials as the candidate of the conservative grass-roots is his endorsement from a “Who’s Who” of conservative leaders, including 1992 Senate nominee Bruce Herschensohn (DeVore’s honorary campaign chairman), Rep. Tom McClintock, and all of his fellow Republicans in the Assembly.

“I love Chuck,” is how one prominent Orange County businessman and Republican leader responded when I asked his opinion of the Senate hopeful, but then he added the “but” addition that is heard frequently about the conservative hopeful: “But I worry whether he can raise the money needed to go up against Boxer.

This “I-love-Chuck-but” mantra is the same reason a number of well-heeled GOPers have held back from contributing to DeVore and are looking at Fiorina, who recently announced she was running for the Senate. She has already signed on media maestro Fred Davis, who has handled the winning campaigns of Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe and worked on John McCain’s presidential campaign. As she did in my “veepstakes” interview last year when she was considered as a running mate for John McCain, Fiorina has described herself as “pro-life” and “pro-business” (although she has offered few specifics on this and does not have a long history of Republican involvement in California).

GOP hopes that the former high-tech executive would deploy her own wealth on a campaign were dashed last week when the candidate herself told the San Francisco Chronicle she would not self-finance her campaign. Now Fiorna backers say they are confident she can raise the money for the primary and general election through her widespread business and social contacts.

“Look, I’ve raised $600,000 in gross dollars so far,” DeVore told me, “That’s more than any Republican Senate candidate had raised at this point in the last ten years.” He also pointed out that he has more than 14,000 contributors and many of whom have come on board his campaign through his use of Facebook and other modern “social networking tools.”

“Maybe Al Gore may have invented the Internet,” DeVore said with a laugh,” but Barack Obama showed how it can be used to mobilize fresh contributors and campaign workers. That’s about all Obama and I have in common—marrying the modern technological tools to politics and understanding that the ‘industrial age’ of throwing big money on television for candidates is over.”

Whitman’s “No Vote” Saga Surfaces, as Poizner Pitches to Conservatives

There were major developments on the eve of the Republican convention involving the two gubernatorial front-runners, former e-Bay chief executive officer Meg Whitman and State Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner.

The 53-year-old Whitman, whom much of the national punditocracy has dubbed the favorite in the primary nine months from now, was rocked by published reporters in the Sacramento Bee that she had not registered to vote until 2002 and did not become a registered Republican until 2007.

The billionaire businesswoman, who had been a key player in the ’08 presidential campaigns of Mitt Romney and later John McCain, had apologized at the last state convention for failing to vote “on several occasions.” The Bee research of six states and a dozen counties where she had lived showed that those “several occasions” meant not voting from when she turned the legal age (18) in Suffolk County (NY) to as late as the recall election in 2003 that swept Schwarzenegger into the governorship of California.

Whitman’s “no voting” saga surfaced as party conservatives appeared to be rallying behind Poizner, the lone Republican in any statewide office. Established conservative such as former State GOP Chairman Mike Schroeder obviously disagree with Poizner’s “pro-choice” abortion stand (although he said he opposes tax dollars for abortions and opposed late-term abortions), they nonetheless admire how the commissioner spells out just what he plans to do as governor. Other conservatives who have endorsed Poizner include State Board of Equalization members Bill Leonard and Michelle Steel and Ward Connerly, father of the state’s anti-affirmative action initiative.

In contrast, conventioneers told me, Whitman doesn’t participate in forums with Poizner and a third candidate, liberal former Rep. Tom Campbell, and rarely says more than that she plans to run state government “like a business.”

In an effort to highlight Whitman’s refusal to debate , convention guests at the Renaissance Esmeralda Hotel were greeted by a staffer dressed in a chicken costume wearing a sign saying “Meg’s 2 Chicken 2 Debate” and carrying a fan emblazoned with Whitman’s quote about former White House “green jobs” czar: “I’m a big fan of Van Jones.

“We need a governor who can fix the economy, period,” Poizner told me, pointing to his state’s 12.2% unemployment rate (more than 30% in the drought-ravaged San Joaquin Valley) and its loss of 750,000 jobs last year.

In an exclusive interview with me before the convention, Stanford Business School graduate Poizner laid out his agenda for revival of the Golden State: cutting the state sales tax and the personal income tax “in every bracket” by 10% and the state capital gains tax by 50%. As to whether he would take on powerful public service employee unions by making cuts in state personnel and agencies, Poizner shot back that he had reduced the size of the insurance commissioner’s office from 1300 to 1100 employees in four years and sharply cut office expenses.

Fueling the acceptance and support for Poizner from the right is the fact that Whitman’s top strategist, Jeff Randall, came from the political team of former Gov. Pete Wilson, who was often at dagger’s ends with conservatives during his eight years in the statehouse. Another key figure on Team Whitman is Rob Stutzman, who worked for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s campaign (but, as he told me, also helped conservative Rep. Tom McClintock in his 1994 bid for State Controller.)

For all of the Democratic patterns in modern California, Republicans explain their enthusiasm over winning the governorship by almost always pointing to the likely Democratic nominee: State Attorney General and former Gov. Jerry Brown. Now 71 and nearly bald, Brown’s past record as a somewhat erratic politician (“Governor Moonbeam”) and his policies in the 1970’s that are related to California’s economic calamity today are likely to make pungent campaign fodder for whomever carries the GOP standard next year.

Tax Issue Still Packs Punch In California

For the first time in as long as anyone can recall, former State GOP Chairman Mike Schroeder missed a state party convention. Orange County lawyer Schroeder was not in Indian Wells because he was too busy at home orchestrating the recall of Republican State Assemblyman Anthony Adams, one of a handful of GOP legislators who voted with Gov. Schwarzenegger earlier this year on his effort to raise taxes (which voters resoundingly rejected in a statewide initiative).

“For the party of no taxes and smaller government, this is unacceptable,” Schroeder told me. Longtime conservative activist Schroeder was in the forefront of efforts to recall two Republican legislators in the early 1990’s who had sided with then-Democratic Assembly Speaker Willie Brown over control of the legislature.

Although the signatures of 37,000 registered voters in Adams’ district are required to force a recall of the embattled lawmaker, Schroeder has so far collected more than 50,000 and will probably turn in more than 60,000, he insisted. If 37,000 signatures are certified by the secretary of state, the governor must then set a date when voters can decide whether to retain or reject Adams, and then, if they vote to reject, choose from a list of candidates regardless of party to replace him. This is the same process through which Democratic Gov. Gray Davis was recalled in 2003 and voters selected as his replacement Arnold Schwarzenegger.