Oct. 2 2007 06:00 AM

GOP Chief Nehring is finding the going a bit tougher at the state level

    Last Thursday night, the reports started pouring in. Voice message, text message, Facebook group notification, e-mail news update and high-traffic blog-post notification. The first message said all that needed to be said: 'PERA is dead.'

    Faced with anemic fundraising and close scrutiny of shadowy unnamed donors from out of state, the backers of the Presidential Electoral Reform Act (PERA) had reportedly pulled the plug. (If successful, the ballot initiative would allocate California's electoral votes according to which presidential candidate wins a congressional district. This means that 20 or more of the state's 55 electoral votes could go to the Republican presidential nominee-a block of votes equivalent to winning Ohio.)

    But it turns out the initiative is still on life support, not fully abandoned by the California Republican Party (CRP). Still, the attempt to change the way California apportions its electoral votes is in major trouble. Republican lawyer Thomas Hiltachk, who authored the initiative, has abandoned the project amid fundraising trouble, but party activists like Tony Andrade have yet to give up.

    'The issue is so hot,' Andrade told the L.A. Daily News, 'it's going to continue on.'

    Regardless, the initiative's remaining supporters face daunting challenges, like raising the estimated $2 million needed to fund a signature drive that would get the initiative on next June's ballot. The dramatic about-face is especially problematic for state Republican Party Chairman Ron Nehring who, since taking over the party in February, has faced a series of public setbacks and badly needed a win with PERA.

    Nehring became chairman on the strength of his success in turning San Diego County into a Republican stronghold. Under his watch since 2001, San Diego County became a model for how to turn urban areas away from progressive politics. Thanks to extensive monetary and strategic support from a national network of major Republican players, San Diego became their Petri dish for 21st-century politics. But now, with the Bush administration driving the country further away from the Republican Party, the stakes have risen. Tasked with adapting the lessons of San Diego and applying them to the largest state in the nation, Nehring has struggled to generate positive momentum at a time when the party is in desperate need of exactly that.

    Just a month ago at the CRP convention in Indian Wells, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger warned the gathered faithful, 'We are dying at the box office' and expressed concern that 'our party has lost the middle.' By contrast, Republican leaders stood firm in their defense of the CRP, generally agreeing with State Sen. Tom McClintock's summation: 'We don't need to re-define our principles,' McClintock told conventioneers, 'we need to return to them.'

    PERA proved popular at the convention, where the initiative was officially given an early endorsement. It provided a rallying point amid heated debate over changes to the party's platform. Yet the party's most visible leader, Schwarzenegger, told one reporter that PERA seemed to be derived from 'a loser's mentality.'

    Nehring couldn't disagree more.

    'The interest in this initiative is rooted in a common desire to see all Californians represented in the outcome of the national election,' he wrote in an e-mail to CityBeat, 'and to see that all parts of the state draw the national attention they deserve.'

    The initiative has certainly drawn national attention-it's been lampooned by Steven Colbert, prompted Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean to issue a call to action and mobilized California's Democratic congressional delegation. It remains to be seen whether Nehring can resurrect the proposal, but what's clear is that party leaders want Nehring to replicate his considerable success in San Diego and change the way Republicans do business at the state level.

    Nehring arrived in San Diego at the invitation of then-Assemblyman Howard Kaloogian in 1996 after a career in Washington, D.C., think tanks, where he worked with lobbyist Jack Abramoff and was a protégé of small-government proponent Grover Norquist.

    According to a study called Target San Diego, published in 2005 by left-leaning think tank Center on Policy Initiatives, Nehring's ascension to the top of the county's Republican Party was part of a plan by right-wing power brokers-like Norquist-to use San Diego as a case study in testing out new strategies and policy ideas. CPI's study noted that Ralph Reed, former director of the Christian Coalition, once said of the plan: 'Stealth was a big factor in San Diego's success. It's like guerrilla warfare. If you reveal your location all it does is allow your opponent to improve his artillery bearings.'

    Tasked with implementing the new ideas being churned out by conservative think tanks, Nehring took a grassroots approach and focused on less-glamorous tasks like precinct organizing, voter registration and candidate recruitment. He set about reframing and reevaluating the local Republican agenda and looked for weak spots in the growing progressive movement that had helped establish a labor- and environment-friendly City Council. Nehring focused his efforts on fielding candidates for low-level and non-partisan races and his work paid off. By the time he departed for the statewide post earlier this year, he could boast that 63 percent of San Diego County elected offices were held by Republicans.

    But before getting his feet under him at the state level, he ran into trouble. In June, it came to light that the state party's chief operating officer, an Australian, had previously been arrested and ordered deported for illegal attempts to obtain a green card. The hire, Michael Kamburowski, was a former colleague of Nehring at Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform and came personally recommended by Norquist. And, during the same period, it was discovered that the state Republican Party had sought and received a highly coveted H-1B work visa in order to hire a Canadian with no experience running a California campaign to be deputy political director and head of technology. H-1B visas are used exclusively to hire people who have specific skills that Americans do not have.

    Kamburowski has since resigned under the weight of the flap, but many GOP activists, strategists and observers expressed concern over the impact of Nehring's two high-profile personnel problems on party fundraising. Later in the summer, these concerns were seemingly validated when Schwarzenegger was forced to help retire the state party's debt after rumors surfaced that it could barely cover operating costs.

    Emerging from these early setbacks, Nehring strongly defended the Presidential Election Reform Act from widespread Democratic and media criticism. Newspapers throughout the state lined up in opposition to PERA, expressing sentiments similar to the Orange County Register's assessment that it 'might have a sheen of fairness, but it is nakedly partisan and profoundly subversive of our constitutional system.' PERA's opponents argued that the initiative violated California's Constitution, which explicitly gives the state Legislature the power to determine how electoral votes are apportioned.

    Meanwhile, Nehring welcomed the criticism and used it as a mobilization tool. He enthusiastically promoted the initiative as an agent of improved diversity.

    'Allocating Electoral College votes by congressional district respects the diversity of our state and will ensure that our Electoral College votes reflect that diversity,' he told CityBeat.

    The initiative, he added, requires 'candidates to pay attention to California and California issues through the general election.'

    It's worth noting, however, that of the 19 Republican congress members from California, only one is a woman and all but one are white. It's also worth noting that California's congressional districts are so gerrymandered that only one, the 11th District, has changed hands (in 2006) since the most recent redistricting took effect in 2002. This does not immediately suggest that California would be the target of increased campaigning or electoral fluctuation.

    Nevertheless, Nehring finds himself faced with the choice of whether or not to revive an initiative that could swing electoral politics wholesale. His tactics were effective in San Diego during a politically friendly era for Republicans. Nehring's new challenge is to translate over the successes and lessons from San Diego despite an increasingly hostile national climate and a state party that's been divided by Schwarzenegger's social liberalism and its own ideological activist base.

    PERA could have been and may still be that galvanizing issue, but on the heels of earlier failures this year, Nehring is running out of time to find a recipe that works. Where San Diego was once the local Petri dish for the national GOP, California has likely become the state-level testing ground for the prospects of the GOP for years to come, and this icy reception for a banner issue could portend long-lasting struggles ahead.


    Lucas O'Connor blogs on local, state and national issues from San Diego and is a member of the editorial board at the progressive online site Calitics.com. Eric Wolff contributed to this story.



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