THE BLOG
04/19/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

California Conservatives Without a Firebrand in the Governor's Race

By Phil Trounstine and Jerry Roberts
www.calbuzz.com

Consider the problems facing conservative California Republicans. We're not talking about the low-tax, small government, laissez-faire fiscal folks. We're talking about the unflinching, pro-life, pro-gun, anti-gay-marriage conservatives who have, for decades, served as keepers of the GOP flame.

These are the true-believers who attend party conventions, knock on doors and lick stamps for mailings and who vote in every Republican primary. There are just enough of them to make sure that there's almost always one of their own representing their party in top-of-the-ticket general elections.

They've given us George Deukmejian, Dan Lungren, Bruce Herschensohn and Bill Simon for example. Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger were exceptions to the rule. Wilson was drafted by desperate GOP grandees to run in the wide-open governor's race in 1990. Schwarzenegger slipped by in the 2003 recall election; he likely could never have won a Republican primary.

But with Meg Whitman, the former EBay CEO, and Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, a former Silicon Valley executive, as the leading GOP contenders, and with moderate former San Jose Congressman Tom Campbell considering a run, the genuine, red-blooded, God-fearing, movement conservatives have no candidate for governor to call their own this time out.

Whitman and Poizner (and Campbell, too) are pro-choice, for example, and Whitman even told our friend Carla Marinucci of the San Francisco Chronicle she believes that since abortion is legal, "it has to be made available to women of all means." That's public funding, campers. Like Poizner, she supports parental consent for teenage girls, and opposes so-called "partial-birth abortion." Both also support embryonic stem cell research - another taboo among uncompromising abortion foes.

"They're both moderates," says Mike Spence, president of the California Republican Assembly. But neither of them would be as bad as Schwarzenegger, he adds. "We want to see conservative things put into government. If a moderate does conservative things, that's okay."

At least, he says, they both oppose Proposition 1A, a key part of Schwarzenegger's budget-bail-out package.

"Conservatives feel used and abused by Arnold Schwarzenegger," explains Jon Fleischman, the indefatigable editor of the conservative blog Flash Report. Although Poizner has something of an advantage among conservatives - he's a known entity and is working hard to build ties to the right wing of the party - the office he holds "is one statewide office most conservatives would say shouldn't even exist" since its chief responsibility is to regulate an industry.

Fleischman wonders if either Poizner or Whitman, or both, will use their millions to become widely known across the state among the ideologues who vote in low-turn-out elections by airing television ads opposing Prop. 1A. That kind of strategic move could burnish their credentials among the movement conservatives - especially since it would pit them against Schwarzenegger.

In a very personal way, the Terminator, it seems, has turned a lot of arch-conservatives into pragmatists: they may just be happy to have a candidate who would oppose tax increases, even if they have to concede the social issues that have long defined their movement.

There's some chatter about Ventura County Supervisor Peter Foy, who has some millions of his own, filling the void. But it's not clear he could compete at the megabucks level at which Whitman and Poizner are prepared to play.

"Will most conservatives feel like hey have a conservative candidate in the race for governor? I don't know," Fleischman says. "But there's a big opening for a well-funded conservative."