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California Republicans in Crisis: Another Big Shoe Drops

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Another big shoe dropped Wednesday in the ongoing crisis of the California Republican Party. One of its young rising stars, state Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, a decorated Marine veteran of the Iraq War, dropped his party registration to become an independent. Which might be a path forward for Republicans who don't reject modernity and governance.

Ranking Republicans privately bemoaned the fact that their party has a very thin bench when it comes to people who might win a future statewide election. Fletcher was part of a very short list.

Meanwhile, Governor Jerry Brown continued to get good news moving forward toward his November revenue initiative, a measure that would have been unnecessary had Republicans last year not rejected him and his more moderate course at that time on taxation.

Fletcher's move of course ties in with my "California Republicans Have No One To Blame But Themselves" and "The Real Game Change: Palinism's Rise, Moderate Republicanism's Eclipse" pieces here on the Huffington Post last week.

The Republicans have already seen their big strategic move for the year, the attempt to block the Citizens Redistricting Commission's new state Senate lines from going into effect, fail. The party used up its money on that hare brained venture and will no be hard-pressed to defend its members in new legislative and congressional districts. And it couldn't recruit a significant candidate to run against U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, even though it's a great low-risk opportunity for someone with a future to get his or her name out there.

So losing one of its few potentially electable future hopes is a big deal.

Not that it's not at least somewhat situational, mind you.

Fletcher, 35, is running for mayor of San Diego, with the first round election just under 10 weeks away. And the San Diego Republican Party endorsed a much more conservative city councilman over Fletcher. So Fletcher, who sought the party endorsement, is making a move he wouldn't have made otherwise.

But it's a move made necessary by his party's rightward shift.

It's not as though Fletcher is some sort of closet Democrat, or a liberal Republican -- yes, such creatures did once walk the land, in the Mad Men era -- or even a real moderate. He is a moderate conservative,

He hasn't moved to the left. His party has moved further to the right, with its endorsed candidate, San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio, helping lead the way.

Voice of San Diego has a useful compendium of stories chronicling the rightward move of the party in San Diego, as well as Fletcher's emergence as a rising GOP star and penchant for reaching across the aisle from time to time to get things done.

Fletcher backed Governor Jerry Brown's jobs plan late last year, in which the governor proposed to swap a much maligned big tax break for corporations doing business out of state for a set of tax breaks for businesses creating jobs in California. Fletcher provided one of the two Republican votes needed to pass the measure in the Assembly, but Brown couldn't find the two needed votes in the Senate to send the plan to his desk.

Fletcher has also backed gay rights, giving an emotional speech in the Capitol as a decorated Marine veteran opposing the "Don't Ask/Don't Tell" policy and voting for legislation requiring curriculum materials to reflect the role of gays and lesbians in history. And he's an advocate of renewable energy, voting for Brown's legislation to require that 33% of all electric power in California come from renewable sources by the end of 2020.

But, no liberal, he says he won't back Brown's November revenue initiative.

Actually, Fletcher comes from the mainline of the Republican Party. He's married to Mindy Tucker Fletcher, who was spokeswoman for George W. Bush's 2000 presidential campaign and later a deputy chief of staff for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

And he's backed by some of the state's top moderate conservative Republicans, such as former Governor Pete Wilson (also an ex-Marine, who was first elected to the Assembly and became San Diego mayor before becoming the last California Republican to win a seat in the U.S. Senate, 30 years ago); Wilson's longtime chief of staff, Bob White, who managed Arnold Schwarzenegger's landslide win in the 2003 California recall election; and former Los Angeles Mayor Dick Riordan.

Fletcher, a graduate of California Baptist University, not exactly a hotbed of the counter-culture, enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve after 9/11, rising to the rank of staff sergeant. He was decorated for bravery in combat in the Iraq War and for his work as an intelligence specialist in the Horn of Africa.

I don't know Fletcher, but I've met him several times, first at a Schwarzenegger party in 2006. He's personable and smart, with a certain mediagenic quality. I could see him mounting a serious statewide campaign in the future.

He's being aided in this campaign by new senior advisor Matt David, who served as Schwarzenegger's gubernatorial communications director and a John McCain aide and more recently was Jon Huntsman's presidential campaign manager.

Huntsman, of course, had an impressive third place finish in the New Hampshire primary but otherwise found it difficult to break through in a presidential primary process dominated by the hard right. Not that Huntsman, the former governor of Utah, was anything like a liberal. But the economic conservative Huntsman believes in the science of evolution and climate change. And he had been President Barack Obama's choice as US ambassador to China, and that was a bridge too far for Republicans this year, as Team Obama anticipated when the president made the appointment.

Fletcher's move sets up a very intriguing test case for Republicans who haven't turned their backs on modernity and governance.

San Diego, which is a longtime Navy town, has historically been a Republican town. But voter registration in the city doesn't favor Republicans any more. In fact, there are now nearly as many independents as there are Republicans, with indies at 27% and Republicans at 28%, with 40% registered Democrats.

Longtime Congressman Bob Filner, not advantaged in the new non-partisan redistricting, is the only name Democrat running.

A poll a few weeks ago for the U-T, the paper formerly known as the San Diego Union Tribune, shows right-wing Councilman Carl DeMaio in the lead at 24%, followed by Democratic Congressman Filner at 20%, with Fletcher tied with San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis at 10% each. That leaves a whopping 36% undecided, more than enough to turn the election.

Fletcher has raised a million dollars, just behind the fundraising leader DeMaio with $1.2 million. But nearly half a million of DeMaio's warchest comes from himself. It will be interesting to see how Fletcher's move affects his leadership in fundraising from others.

Dumanis has raised $600,000 and Filner, the lone Democrat, trails with around $300,000.

Fletcher's move may well presage what Republicans of the non-far right will do in state politics: Go indie. The opportunity has been created by initiatives pushed by Schwarzenegger, aided by his chief political advisor Adam Mendelsohn, which took redistricting out of the hands of legislators and established an open primary system in which the top two finishers, regardless of party registration, go on to the general election. The move has already caused a big drop-off in Republican candidates signing the notorious no-tax pledge.

As I discussed last week in the "California Republicans Have No One To Blame But Themselves," which featured Schwarzenegger's prescient 2007 speech warning Republicans of what was to come, while Republican registration dropped four points between January 2008 and January 2012, indie registration rose three points. Democratic registration is about the same. The current numbers: Democrat 44%, Republican 30%, independent 21%.

A decade from now, independents may well have caught or surpassed Republicans, as is now the case in San Diego.

Which makes the San Diego mayoral race a fascinating proving ground for what may be a new politics in California. My initial guess, however, is that a moderate or moderate conservative running as an independent rather than a Republican will work best for someone who has not already established his or her identity as a Republican. But that could be wrong.

The ongoing problems of the Republican Party are mostly good for Jerry Brown. (They were bad last year, when he was trying to cut a deal, but life moves on.)

Brown may also benefit from a revealing Sunday piece by Steve Harmon in the San Jose Mercury News on the meaning of Ronald Reagan in today's politics.

It yields this priceless quote from far right blogger Jon Fleischman, a former state party vice chairman and ranking California Republican ideologist: "Raising taxes is a legitimate part of his history. But as a practical matter, a great number of conservatives will first learn that Reagan signed tax increases when they read this story. It's just not a part of the narrative."

Nope. Reality is just not a part of "the narrative."

Then there is the latest USC/LA Times poll.

Brown's new hybrid initiative, result of a compromise with the California Federation of Teachers and other members of a left-liberal coalition, tested very well in the soundings done by two national polling firms run by Democrat Stan Greenberg and Republican Linda DiVall, both of whom joined the poll's director, USC Unruh Institute of Politics director Dan Schnur, in a conference call to discuss the poll and its findings on Monday.

Schnur, former communications director for Republican Governor Pete Wilson and John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign, declared: "Governor Brown has pulled off a political coup" with his revised initiative. He has "removed the principal impediment to his plans with minimal substantive changes."

Unless significant financial opposition arises, he said, "It's a very adroit move by the governor."

And if that opposition comes from the business community and/or the very rich, it won't be that hard to demonize it.

The poll shows the revised Brown initiative ahead by a whopping 64% to 33%.

In contrast, the last remaining rival measure, heiress Molly Munger's plan to raise the income tax for virtually everyone, trails 64% to 32%.

As I've said all along, she has no chance of winning and is wasting her money in proceeding and my time in having to keep typing the obvious.

Brown's own ratings are constant, with 49-35 on job approval and 51-34 favorable/unfavorable.

As we've already seen, the Republican Party's ratings are down and falling.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.

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