California Republicans resigned to irrelevance in GOP presidential race

January 9, 2012 

Jeff Miller, Texas Gov. Rick Perry's presidential campaign chairman in California, was in Iowa with a handful of California lawmakers for last week's caucuses. He may find himself in South Carolina when the race arrives there later this month.

He isn't missing much back home.

"That June primary," Miller said, "might as well be 100 years away."

It sure feels like it.

While the Republican presidential campaigns fast-forward to New Hampshire on Tuesday and South Carolina on Jan. 21, hardly anyone in California is off the couch. Republicans here know the race may be over before they vote on June 5.

"Sadly, we are irrelevant," said Celeste Greig, president of the conservative California Republican Assembly. "Come June, there will be a nominee. We will not have been at the table."

Perry, who finished a distant fifth in Iowa, and Mitt Romney, who won, have relatively robust fundraising operations in California, and Newt Gingrich last month announced his selection of a state finance chairman here. Like President Barack Obama, the Republican candidates have raised millions of dollars in this donor-rich state.

But good luck finding a yard sign.

"Other than the cashectomy being performed by Romney and Perry, it's been very quiet in terms of organization," said Jon Fleischman, publisher of the conservative Flash Report blog.

Ron Paul spoke at the California Republican Party's convention in September and won its straw poll, thanks to his crowd of youthful supporters and to a check written by the campaign to secure their convention voting privileges. Yet even he is doing very little on the ground.

"It's way too early," John Dennis, who is volunteering for Paul, said as he returned from Iowa to his home in San Francisco.

Eric Beach, state finance chairman for Gingrich, said the campaign will announce a political structure in California within weeks. But it is unclear whether that operation will be anything more than preparatory.

California's presidential primary four years ago was in February. The state's voters, if not a deciding factor, were at least afforded a taste of the buzz to which voters in many other states are accustomed. The Democratic primary election that year was an endurance contest between Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton. Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, D-Los Angeles, said it was an example of a year in which California's primary was too early – not too late – to be meaningful.

"We could have been the margin of victory in California had our primary been later," he said.

Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, signed legislation returning the presidential primary to June, consolidating it with the statewide primary election. Democrats didn't mind: Their primary this year is uncontested. But many Republican lawmakers said they stomached the measure, which enjoyed bipartisan support, only because of the savings promised by consolidation, an estimated $100 million.

"The old adage in California is that a political rally is a husband and wife watching a commercial," said Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist. "For the Republicans, it's a husband and wife watching Republicans in Iowa on Fox."

He said he's always wondered why California, with its massive population, doesn't insist on an earlier primary.

"Even though the Republican Party is the minority party in California," he said, "there's still a lot more Republicans in California than there are in Iowa."

Jeff Randle, a Republican strategist, said "you never know" if the Republican primary will still be competitive in June, but he doubts it will be, and he said that's a shame.

"I just think it's important to have a competitive primary, for the state to have a role," he said. "It's important that our issues are aired and that candidates come to California."

The Republican Party's shift this year to a more proportional system of allocating delegates in early primaries could allow some candidates to hang on longer than they otherwise might, perhaps benefiting later states. Rick Santorum's close finish to Romney in Iowa also "perpetuates the race," said Rob Stutzman, a Republican strategist.

But that could change in a week.

"If Santorum wins South Carolina and beats Romney in Florida, then yeah, game on," Stutzman said. "But then there's Super Tuesday."

After that, it's three months and two dozen more contests to go before Californians go to the polls.

"The problem with California is our primary's in June," said Mike Spence, a conservative activist and former president of the California Republican Assembly. "Except for money, the election is over, probably."

To read more, visit www.sacbee.com.

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