03/12/2013 08:12 am ET Updated May 12, 2013

For California Republicans, Stunt Politics Worked for Awhile and Then Backfired (Yet Dems Can Still Blow It)

California Republicans aren't down to 29 percent registration, with no one serious to run against Governor Jerry Brown, no statewide electeds, and shrinking minorities in the state Legislature and congressional delegation because they need a better get-out-the-vote operation, more spending on ethnic outreach, or more PR, the implicit premise of their "nuts and bolts" approach under new state party chair Jim Brulte. They're dead in the water because they're too extreme and out of touch with most Californians.

But even as they were sliding ever farther to the right, and increasingly out of touch with a much more diverse and socially liberal and environmentally conscious populace, Republicans managed to stay in the game with ascending Democrats, largely through a series of stunts.

This grows clearer looking back from the most recent political history to that of nearly 20 years ago, contemporary by any real standard but practically ancient history in our increasingly ADD and ahistorical culture.

* In 2012, after running tens of millions of dollars from a handful of mega-rich donors through the Small Business Action Committee re-branding operation, conservative Republicans upped the ante on stuntsmanship with the biggest anonymous political contribution in California history, a whopping $11 million. All still secret, despite the intervention of the Republican majority state Supreme Court.

All as part of a backfiring attempt to stop Brown's Proposition 30 revenue initiative and boost the latest losing initiative attempt to hamstring public employee union campaign spending. These shenanigans, when properly spun up by Brown and company, only fed the Democrats' victory margin last November.

* In 2011, the party spent millions it couldn't afford in a failed attempt to block new state Senate districts drawn by the citizens redistricting commission. Fearing that, with districts no longer gerrymandered by political horsetrading in the legislature, they would lose their ability to block many fiscal moves through having a "super-minority" of at least a third of the seats in the Senate, they spent heavily to qualify a referendum against the work of the commission created by the redistricting reform commission.

But they couldn't get the Republican majority state Supreme Court to use the existence of the referendum on the November 2012 ballot as a reason to force state Senate races to take place in unreformed districts. And knowing they could not actually pass the referendum itself, the Republican leadership allowed the entire gambit to simply collapse.

* Before that, in 2010, came the stunt of running a billionaire for governor. But Meg Whitman was crushed by Jerry Brown, despite waging the biggest spending non-presidential campaign in American history.

A cadre of Republican consultants made very big money from Whitman. But the bonanza for political operators -- and for local TV stations, which booked endless ads from the free-spending ex-eBay head -- was no bonanza for Republicans, or for California.

In the end, the spending itself backfired on Whitman, and on the Republicans, turning off voters who grew tired of seeing and hearing from the candidate.

The frequency of the stunts in the past few years mirrored the growing desperation of the Republican Party. But its competitiveness at the statewide level had been dependent on the success of some very big stunts well before that.

* One of the biggest was the acceptance of global superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger, who took Republicans with him on two landslide election wins as governor. Schwarzenegger ran because he decided to run, not because of a clever master plan by the party. Yet most were eager to jump on the bandwagon. Had Schwarzenegger not run and mounted a credible campaign in the dramatic 2003 recall election, then Governor Gray Davis would likely have retained office.

But most active Republicans missed the underlying point of Schwarzenegger's candidacy. They expressly rejected the moderation that led to two big election wins and, instead, they kept veering to the right.

* Big as these stunts were, the mother of all stunts, to paraphrase Saddam Hussein, the one that kept Republicans competitive in the Golden State after Bill Clinton moved California into the Democratic column in presidential politics, was back in 1994, when incumbent Governor Pete Wilson, threatened by Kathleen Brown's candidacy, seized on illegal immigration and rode the draconian Proposition 187 to a smashing re-election victory. Prop 187 was thrown out by the courts, as some more sophisticated Republicans who backed the move anticipated.

With Brown taking a determined stand against 187 in defeat, despite much advice to the contrary on the Democratic side, this stunt proved to be a Pyrrhic victory in the long run for Republicans. Then state Treasurer Brown, sister of the current governor, placed Democrats on the side of the rising Latino community, putting Republicans on the wrong side of the long-term political equation.

With Republicans in such profound disarray, can Democrats still screw up their opportunity for ongoing dominance?

Democratic strategist David Townsend argues that the Republican Party is "too white, too right and too uptight. I think California is going to stay blue a long time."

But former Governor Gray Davis, who spent seven years as Brown's chief of staff during his first go-round as governor and then won two terms of his own, only to be recalled, notes tellingly: "Everything that goes up can also come down."

And Townsend does see a major problem on the horizon. "I think that someday the pension balloon is going to come crashing down and could give a Republican a shot of riding it to the governor's office. Short of that, the Republicans can't get out of their own way."

A combination of things, over time, might yet lead to disaster for Democrats. The shortfall in public pensions and retiree health care, too many examples of bad public spending, a souring economy, scandal, an absence of Brown, and so on.

Over time, such things can add up in very negative ways.

But for now, with Republican stunts exhausted yet, in some cases -- immigrant bashing, dark money ploys -- backfiring still, Democratic prospects in this election cycle are bright.

The state's chronic general fund budget crisis is ended. Brown is on a glide path for re-election and should be able to weather any likely near term problems.

Those dark clouds for Dems on the horizon? They're still out there, on that horizon.

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