In good news for the California Republican Party, it looks like Abel Maldonado has decided to take one for the team.
Not that anyone will ever admit that, of course. Maldonado, who lost a race for lieutenant governor in 2010 and a Central Coast congressional contest last November, said all the right things last week when he announced his plan to run for governor.
Going against Gov. Jerry Brown will be tough, but the people of California need a change.
“We need a new way,” he said as he filed his preliminary papers for the race. “It’s time that we move forward with some bold ideas, bold solutions and I believe we can do better as Californians.”
Details to follow.
But every candidate is entitled to at least one day of dreaming. Even former state Sen. Dick Mountjoy started out talking as though he had a puncher’s chance against Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein in their 2006 race, despite his unwillingness – and financial inability – to campaign anywhere beyond driving distance from his Monrovia home.
Fact is, going against an incumbent governor is California is no fun at all. Voters haven’t blocked a governor from a second term since 1942, when Republican Attorney General Earl Warren clobbered Democratic Gov. Culbert Olson.
Heck, even Gray Davis won re-election and Californians voted to impeach him just 10 months after he was sworn into office in 2003.
But even without the power of incumbency, Maldonado would be running uphill. Every GOP governor since Warren has been either a statewide elected official or a movie star and the Santa Maria Republican isn’t living in Sacramento, Washington, D.C., or Hollywood.
But that doesn’t much matter to Republican Party leaders, who aren’t so much interested in a win against – most likely – Brown in 2014 as they are desperate to avoid embarrassment (See Nevada: Angle, Sharron; Missouri: Akin, Todd; and Delaware: O’Donnell, Christine).
Without a single statewide elected official, the GOP bench is mighty thin. And while Republicans have been more than willing in recent years to back free-spending rich folk anxious to buy their way into a top California political job, the record $144 million of her own money businesswoman Meg Whitman spent to finish second to Brown in 2010 isn’t likely to encourage any encores.
With no one lining up early to take on Brown, Republicans were looking at a repeat of Feinstein’s past two re-election efforts, where the GOP called Mountjoy out of retirement in 2006 to lose big and then watched Elizabeth Emken, whose political experience was limited to finishing third of three in a congressional primary, get crushed in 2012.
In a worst-case scenario for the state party, the very conservative Assemblyman Tim Donnelly actually makes the run for governor he’s been threatening and wins the primary. He then spends the next five months talking about the need for more guns and less immigration, with every TV, newspaper and radio story identifying him as “a former Minuteman who wanted to bring Arizona’s anti-immigration laws to California.
Donnelly still loses, but not before alienating every Latino voter in California and re-poisoning that well for Republicans for another 10 or 20 years.
In other words, Donnelly is exactly the type of statewide candidate Jim Brulte, the new state chair for the GOP, would like to see disappear.
Enter Maldonado. He’s 45 and as close to the California mainstream as any Republican hopeful is likely to get. He’s an experienced campaigner with a good story to tell about growing up as the son of immigrant farm workers and helping build a family farm.
Without a political job, Maldonado can spend his time challenging and annoying Brown, as he did this week when he talked about co-sponsoring a ballot measure to block the early prisoner releases called for by the governor.
Plenty of California conservatives still haven’t forgiven Maldonado for backing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s tax increase in 2010, in return for being appointed to replace Democrat John Garamendi as lieutenant governor.
And while Maldonado is no one’s idea of a liberal, his centrist leanings put him well to the left of the GOP mainstream, which has long derided him as “Republican In Name Only.”
Picking Maldonado as the GOP’s candidate for governor would be an insult to the party’s values, conservatives argue.
But those “party values” have left California Republicans shut out of any political discussion in a state that gets bluer with each election. And the GOP purists aren’t coming up with any suggestions – or candidates — to reverse that trend.
Is Maldonado going to beat Brown or any other Democrat for governor next year? Probably not. But he’s just about the GOP’s only hope for a “good” loss in 2014. And the way things have been going for Republicans in California, that would be a big improvement.
John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.