GOP Looking to Answer its Candidate Question

GOP Looking to Answer its Candidate Question

By Bill Whalen - March 1, 2013

In anticipation of this weekend's California Republican convention in Sacramento, we give you "Jeopardy – the GOP Edition."

Our Final Jeopardy answer: "Bobby Jindal, Harmeet Dhillon, Neel Kashkari."

Yes, all three are Indian American in their ancestry, but the question we were after: "Who are three Republicans at the nexus of what is presently wrong with the California Republican Party?"

Let's begin with Jindal, the second-term Louisiana governor who may be a more frequent visitor to these parts if he seeks the presidency. Last month, before the Republican National Committee, Jindal had this to say: "We've got to stop being the stupid party. It's time for a new Republican Party that talks like adults."

As for Dhillon, she's a San Francisco attorney running for vice chair of the California GOP. She's a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, pals with Ann Coulter and a past editor of the Dartmouth Review. Still, that didn't stop at least one right-wing group from smearing Dhillon as a de facto "communist" for having past ties to the American Civil Liberties Union.

As for Kashkari, C-SPAN junkies (plus those of you who tuned in to HBO's "Too Big to Fail") might recall him as the smooth, shaved-head Treasury official in charge of the Fed's Office of Financial Stability – a.k.a. the $700 billion TARP rescue effort. His 40th birthday approaching in July, Kashkari has embarked on a long-shot run for governor here in California.

Now, the connection of all of this to the woeful state of the California GOP – currently less than 30 percent of the Golden State's electorate and shrinking.

Again, let's begin with Jindal. By "stupid," the Louisiana governor was alluding to a string of Republican U.S. Senate candidates whose dabbling in such outré happenstances as witchcraft, Scientology and "legitimate rape" not only cost the GOP a shot at complete control of the U.S. Congress, but also seriously tarnished the party's brand nationwide. Add California to the list – specifically, Orly Taitz, a GOP Senate hopeful in 2012 nicknamed the "Queen of the Birthers" for her obsession with President Barack Obama's legal status. She collected more than 147,000 votes in last summer's open primary – good enough to for a third-place finish among the 14 Republicans in that contest, and not exactly a shining moment in the land of sunny Reaganesque optimism.

Jindal's not the only prominent Republican to have sounded the "dumb" bell over toxic candidates. So too has Karl Rove, whose Conservative Victory Project aims to help more mainstream (translation: electable) candidates survive the pyrrhic-maniacs who insist upon turning GOP primaries into self-defeating purity tests. For his troubles, Rove's been Photoshopped as a Nazi by one tea party group. He's also scheduled to appear at this weekend's Sacramento GOP conclave. Will he be politely received by the mostly conservative crowd, or heckled by those who take the Gingrichian view that Rove is a latter-day Boss Tweed in sheep's clothing?

Such politeness requires the ability to rationalize that it's in the long-term interests of a supposedly big-tent GOP to be more accepting of a fellow Republican who, even if he or she is but 80 percent compatible with bedrock conservative principles, if the alternative is a red-meat right-winger who at best is 20 percent electable.

For party activists, it also means letting go of the bad habit of shooting first and asking questions later. At least, that's the takeaway from the takedown of Harmeet Dhillon. Would it have pained conservative reactionaries – in this case, over-reactionaries – to have taken the time to discover that Dhillon wasn't politically inspired to hook up with the ACLU; she did so out of a shared desire to help protect her fellow Sikhs from being mistaken for Muslim extremists, a problem in New York City after the 9/11 attacks.

A party on the mend needs promising candidates. Does that include Kashkari? He's never run before, has scant name recognition and presumably doesn't have the same eight-digit personal wealth that made prospecting considerably easier for Meg Whitman and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Then again, the new open primary has changed how the game's played. Rather than winning a separate GOP competition, the goal instead is to finish no worse than second and advance to November.

If Gov. Jerry Brown seeks re-election in 2014, look for a repeat of last year's Senate primary. Dianne Feinstein captured nearly half of that contest's votes; 24 very minor candidates competed for the other half. In the old days, Brown's opponent would be a Republican standard-bearer. In today's California, with a field of little-known challengers, second place goes to the tallest pygmy.

And therein lies the California GOP's challenge looking toward 2014: plenty of pygmies, but no Brobdingnagians who can win – and, in doing so, persuade the party to reform its ways. 

Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Stanford-based Hoover Institution, where he tracks California and national politics, and from April to October is an unapologetic  “seamhead.”

This article originally appeared in the Sacramento Bee on March 1, 2013. It is reprinted with the permission of the Hoover Institution

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