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Bill Whalen

The many ways Republicans running for governor don’t scare Democrats

Years ago, former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan used an oft-used phrase – “the dance of the lemons” – to lament the education establishment’s penchant for shuffling bad teachers from district to district.

Not that the current crop of Republicans who hope to be California’s next governor are a bunch of duds, but there’s an argument to made for leaving this crop on the vine for further ripening.

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The four hopefuls are all green, first-time statewide candidates.

John Cox, a Rancho Santa Fe venture capitalist, is trying to qualify an initiative in 2018 to subdivide the 120 legislative seats each into 100 smaller pieces.

Travis Allen, a Huntington Beach assemblyman, also wants to go to the ballot – to repeal this year’s gasoline tax increase.

David Hadley, a former assemblyman, is betting on Golden State realpolitik: social moderation, fiscal conservatism and not voting for Donald Trump.

And Rosie Grier is the last surviving member of the Los Angeles Rams’ fabled “Fearsome Foursome” from the 1960s.

This quartet does little to scare Democrats. They strike the right chords on jobs, affordable housing, energy costs and poverty, but collectively they lack several elements necessary for a Republican to even have a shot at being viable in California these days.

That includes money (Cox has donated $3 million to his own effort, but that’s small potatoes compared to what Meg Whitman and Arnold Schwarzenegger spent); name recognition (no Republican can match Gavin Newsom in the Bay Area or Antonio Villaraigosa in the Southland); and an extended public-service record.

But most ominously, the Republicans are looking at a prolonged food fight for a limited number of votes.

In the 2003 recall, Schwarzenegger ran a two-month campaign with a surreal name ID, a personal fortune and a made-in-America biography. And he was swimming in a bigger pool of votes. Schwarzenegger and then-GOP state Sen. Tom McClintock collected 62 percent of the total vote.

In the 2014 gubernatorial primary, the top two Republicans took 34 percent of the vote and four lesser knowns another 6 percent. The current GOP field may produce less separation, which means the leading candidate could be hard-pressed to clear 15 percent in June 2018. The best – and maybe only –hope of a Republican making it to the November ballot is that the four warring Democrats dilute their side of the vote.

So how to give Republicans a fighting chance – if not for governor, then to rescue the handful of California GOP congressmen high on the Democrats most-wanted list?

The answer might lay less in individuals and more so ideas – specifically, ballot measures that can galvanize GOP voters.

The November 2014 slate included eight ballot measures without one conservative pulse-raising idea in the lot. The November 2010 ballot did include Proposition 23, which sought to suspend the statewide climate change law. But that measure lost the messaging high ground because it was funded by Texas “dirty energy companies.”

To boost Republican turnout in 2018, the obvious choice would seem the gas tax repeal. A June survey by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Government Studies showed 58 percent opposing the tax, and higher numbers in Republican parts of the state.

That lone initiative may not have the juice to elect a GOP governor, but if it gets more anti-tax conservatives to the polls, it could bail out a few imperiled congressmen.

Call it what it is: trying to make lemonade out of lemons.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be reached at

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