THE REPUBLICAN PARTY IN CALIFORNIA is in a very odd position. Even as it has a governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has won two landslide elections in a row and boasts a 62 percent job-approval rating for his centrist approach, the party leadership has moved — and been pushed — to the far right.
The most public face of the move is not an elected official, but a new kind of politician, a blogging politico exemplified by Jon Fleischman, whose Flash Report Web site has become an online mecca for state Republicans and who in February was elected Southern California chairman of the Republican Party. “I’m having the time of my life,” says Fleischman.
“He’s become a figure more important to the activists than most elected officials,” says Republican consultant and frequent Fox News commentator Karen Hanretty. “He’s a great quote for the mainstream media” — which frequently act as though Fleischman and the bloggers around him represent Republican thinking.
And that’s something that the far less partisan people around Schwarzenegger, who, after all, received 92 percent of the Republican vote, don’t exactly agree with.
Besides the rise of Fleischman, the state Republican Party has replaced as chairman Duf Sundheim, the pragmatic and moderately conservative Silicon Valley lawyer and key Arnold ally, with the very conservative Ron Nehring, a longtime employee and associate of controversial Washington right-wing fixture Grover Norquist. (Norquist runs a national anti-tax crusade and is a longtime associate of the neoconservative adventurers who brought you the Iraq war.)
On another front, nice-guy state Assembly Republican leader George Plescia’s fate was sealed by the damaging leak of Schwarzenegger’s private conversations surreptitiously obtained by Phil Angelides’ campaign team, which slipped the tapes to the Los Angeles Times last fall in hopes of disrupting the governor’s bid for re-election. Comments on the tape, by a top Schwarzenegger staffer, made Plescia sound like a weakling — and his key Sacramento leadership position was handed by the GOP Assembly leaders to hard-line conservative Fresnan Mike Villines, who conducts a prayer group in the capital and previously served as chief of staff to conservative outgoing state Senator Chuck Poochigian.
Meanwhile, pragmatic conservative state Senate Republican Leader Dick Ackerman — not among the hardcore ideologues of the party in Sacramento — barely held off a challenge from the right by Palm Springs–area Senator Jim Battin, who works with and promotes the interests of the Indian casino tribes but also wants to cut government spending, which endears him to the right.
Beneath all this is the rise of new, very far right party leaders: Fleischman, state party vice chairman Tom Del Beccaro, from the Bay Area, and Mike Spence of Los Angeles, who chairs a private group known as the California Republican Assembly. They are prominent bloggers using the power of the Internet to promote a political orthodoxy that, in major respects, is very much at odds with the views expressed by actual Republican voters in poll after poll.
The far-right slant of the Flash Report puts enormous new pressure on Republicans in the state Assembly, all of whom were elected from strangely shaped voting districts whose gerrymandered lines were drawn to concentrate conservative voters and cut out moderates and liberals. The Flash Report has such an outsize effect that, as one source in the Schwarzenegger circle puts it, “Sometimes the Assembly caucus will seem fine. Then they’ll read something on the Flash Report and get all exercised about it.”
These new party leaders come out of private groups like the California Republican Assembly and the Young Americans for Freedom that actually have very modest membership rolls (the California Republican Assembly draws only a few hundred to its conventions) but are very persistent.
In stark contrast to most Republican voters’ views, expressed in many polls, these new leaders oppose not only any increase in the minimum wage, but the very existence of the minimum wage. “The minimum wage is socialism,” says Fleischman.
They also oppose Schwarzenegger’s environmental programs, in particular his drive to curtail greenhouse-gas emissions — and often deny that the greenhouse effect exists, again in stark contrast to views expressed by most Republican voters.
When vitriolic right-wing columnist Ann Coulter called Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards a “faggot” at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, they did not join the chorus of criticism that included all the mainstream Republican presidential candidates.
Asked about that, Fleischman said, “That’s a national issue. We focus on state issues.” Yet his publication featured glowing reports from the conference, and he and his bloggers regularly opine on national issues.
The rightward swing follows a period of several years in which California’s GOP leadership embraced appeals to independent voters — the fastest-growing segment of voters in the state, whose support was key to Schwarzenegger’s two gubernatorial victories.
But now, California Republican Party leaders want to ignore this powerful new voter bloc — even to the point of banning them from participating at the ballot box in next year’s early presidential primary, which in California is largely controlled by the two parties and is not automatically open to independent voters or voters from other parties.