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Scott Brown Need Not Apply: California Republicans in the Post-Arnold Era

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Is there a Scott Brown-like figure to surprise California Democrats this year? No. The politicians who are vying to replace Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger as the ranking California Republican could scarcely be less like Scott Brown. Or, for that matter, Schwarzenegger.

The Republican who takes on wily Democratic Attorney General Jerry Brown -- the former governor, presidential candidate, and Oakland mayor -- will be not a pickup truck-driving pseudo-independent but a plutocrat hugging the far right rail of the current Republican primary.

The Republican who takes on feisty Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer will be not a populist-sounding moderate inveighing against the manipulations of entrenched wealth and power but a golden parachute corporate CEO, a fringe right state legislator, or an intellectual ex-congressman whose faculty advisor was Milton Friedman.

And none of them will be a global icon with a common touch.

New Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown shows off his pickup truck and his populist independent positioning.

Where Scott Brown (who is no relation to Jerry Brown, though their signs look a lot alike) and his consultants defined his political positioning in the absence of any contested Republican primary, enabling him to go right after the independents who decided the Massachusetts special election, the California Republicans running for governor and U.S. senator are engaged in nasty primary fights. Four of the five, including the two gubernatorial candidates, are hewing as much as possible to the far right ideology that animates the California Republican Party.

The principal fight in the California Republican primaries for governor and U.S. senator will be over who is more conservative than the next candidate.

Which has been obvious for over two years now.

In September 2007, Schwarzenegger, alarmed by the ever rightward drift of his party since his two landslide elections as governor in 2003 and 2006, went to the California Republican Party convention on a Friday night at a luxury resort hotel in Indian Wells near Palm Springs. There, in a speech which I'd previewed on my New West Notes blog, he challenged the growing far right orthodoxy and warned the leading activists in his party that they risked making the Republican Party irrelevant in California statewide elections unless they recognized that the center of gravity was more towards the center than the far right.

I was on hand for Schwarzenegger's speech to the party. The reaction of most delegates can best be described as tepid. At best.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed California's landmark climate change program into law in this 2006 ceremony on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay, with British Prime Minister Tony Blair participating via satellite.

Schwarzenegger's speech was followed immediately by an appearance by Texas Governor Rick Perry, who lately has become notorious for urging that Texas secede from the Union. I stuck around for Perry's talk, curious to compare and contrast the response he received to that accorded to Schwarzenegger.

The difference was like night and day. The Republican delegates loved Perry's routine, which was all the familiar right-wing red meat.

They were totally unfazed by the fact that Schwarzenegger had just won a 17-point landslide re-election victory over Democrat Phil Angelides, matching his 17-point landslide victory in the 2003 California recall election as the biggest California Republican victory since then Governor George Deukmejian beat then Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley in his 1986 re-election campaign.

I talked with some of the delegates, and most simply didn't care. Perry was telling them what they wanted to hear, which was in line with the rhetoric spewed forth from right-wing radio shows, blogs, and the Young Americans for Freedom alums elected in gerrymandered state legislative districts.

Billionaire Meg Whitman, a Republican candidate for governor of California, says she hasn't voted very often. She's already matched the personal spending record for a California primary race and the primary election isn't until June.

The next day, after watching John McCain give a luncheon speech as he worked to reboot the presidential campaign that had imploded earlier in 2007, I drove off from Palm Springs and ended up talking on the phone to Jerry Brown. He made it clear that he was thinking of running for governor -- still "thinking," incidentally, though he cleared the Democratic field last year, as I explained here on the Huffington Post -- and wondered about the bottom line on the Republican convention and Schwarzenegger's attempt to move the party toward the center.

The bottom line, of course, was clear. Schwarzenegger's attempt to move his party away from the far right was already failing. Future Republican candidates would have to kow-tow to a militant ideological hardcore.

And this is exactly what is happening.

In the California Republican primary for the Senate, only former Silicon Valley Congressman Tom Campbell has a modicum of moderation. And he's a former disciple of Milton Friedman, who when he ran for the Senate in the 1990s wanted to include China in NAFTA. Ex-Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina is a staunch conservative, a former spokesperson for the last Republican presidential campaign. (Who got in trouble when she said that Sarah Palin couldn't run Hewlett Packard.) And state Assemblyman Chuck DeVore is a Tea Party guy.

Ex-Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, a Republican candidate for the Senate, discusses her lucrative severance package.

In the governor's race, billionaire ex-eBay CEO Meg Whitman and super-rich state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner are both hugging the right-hand rail of the race course. With the exception of abortion, it's all right-wing all the time for these two. Neither is going to be driving around California in a pickup truck or showing up on factory floors.

Scott Brown, who avoided having any primary in Massachusetts, was free to run as a de facto independent. (And fortunate to run against, in Martha Coakley, a candidate with less experience in electoral politics than he had.)

The irony is that neither Whitman, whose only previous involvement in public affairs was her service as national co-chair of John McCain's presidential campaign and national financ co-chair of Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, nor Poizner, who made a fortune devising mobile phone tracking technology, has as conservative a background as the positions they espouse in their campaigns for governor.

Whitman, well, we don't really know what she thought about politics before the last few years. She seldom bothered to even vote. And, like Democrat Al Checchi, whose primary personal spending record of $40 million she's already matched (the primary this year isn't until June), never so much as wrote an op-ed piece to express her concerns about California.

Former Silicon Valley entrepreneur Steve Poizner, a Republican candidate for governor, talks up his tax cuts-heavy economic program on Larry Kudlow's CNBC show.

Ad for Poizner, he has a much longer standing record of public involvement not necessarily related to his own advancement, including service as a White House fellow and as a school teacher. And of course, he's actually bothered to service in public office before pretending he ready to be governor of America's largest and most complex state.

But the irony is that he had seemed to be one of the few Arnold Republicans. Schwarzenegger discovered Poizner during his ill-fated 2004 attempt to defeat Democrats in a dozen state Assembly districts he had carried during his landslide victory in the 2003 California recall campaign.

Poizner ran as a very moderate Republican in a San Francisco Bay Area district, losing despite spending $6 million from his personal fortune. But he was the only good thing to come out of the disastrous effort, which had been masterminded for Schwarzenegger by his then chief political strategist Mike Murphy, who is now a Meg Whitman strategist.

Schwarzenegger raved about what a great guy Poizner was and vowed to keep him involved, appointing him to the state Public Utilities Commission. However, Poizner's personal finances were so tangled in potential conflicts of interest that he could not be confirmed, which Schwarzenegger finally, regretfully, acknowledged in pulling the appointment. Schwarzenegger then involved him in his redistricting reform efforts before Poizner joined Schwarzenegger in 2006 as the only Republicans to win statewide office. But by the time of that fateful state Republican convention in September 2007, it was clear that the far right was the dominant tendency in party politics, and Poizner was running for governor.

To the great amusement of the crowd, Jerry Brown discusses the governance of California in this 2005 conference at UCLA with former Governors George Deukmejian and Gray Davis.

Perhaps this is one reason why the usually ebullient Schwarzenegger appeared unusually subdued yesterday in his final annual luncheon address to the state capital's press club. Undoubtedly another is that the chronic state budget deficit was driven skyward by the near meltdown of the global financial system, with his combination of spending limits and tax hikes shot down at the polls last spring.

Still, the lack of a moderate Republican successor -- much less any figure even approximating a Scott Brown -- is clear.

Which may account for his comments in Sunday's Maureen Dowd column in the New York Times. Schwarzenegger discusses the difficulty of enacting sweeping change in government -- think back to the entire year he spent on trying to pass a Hillary Clinton-esque universal health care program after winning a landslide re-election victory in November 2006 -- and has some interesting things to say about his successor as governor.

Arnold freely talks about his admiration for Jerry Brown. Would he be upset if the Republicans lost and Brown succeeded him?

"No," he said, taking a final puff. "I think the best person should win, whatever party that is."

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