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Circular Firing Squad

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.

Vowing that he would rescind the GOP ban on independent voters, Nehring told Sacramento-based political reporters two months ago, “I will order that the primary ballot go to independent voters.” But it turns out he hasn’t got direct authority to do that under GOP rules, and he hasn’t moved to change those rules.

“I don’t know how you function as a modern political party in California without reaching out to independent voters,” says former party chairman Sundheim, who pushed for their inclusion in the February presidential primary.

BUT THE VICARS OF THE FAR RIGHT will have none of it. The bloggers crusade relentlessly against letting independent voters participate in next February’s primary, believing that these less partisan and more middle-of-the-road voters will try to pick a more moderate Republican presidential contender, such as John McCain.

As Fleischman puts it, “Only Republicans should decide who our candidates are. If they want to vote in our primary, they should become Republicans.”

It’s an attitude that Democrats adore. “We want independents to vote in our primary,” says Democratic strategist Roger Salazar. “Let those guys have their little conservative clubhouse if they want.”

For his part, Del Beccaro, who backed Poochigian’s campaign for state attorney general last November, pursued a fruitless but high-profile lawsuit to disqualify former Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown from the race for having failed to pay his bar association fees. (In fact, Brown, a Yale Law grad, paid reduced membership fees while he was not a practicing attorney.)

Although California’s more sophisticated Republican consultants laughed off the anti-Brown case from the beginning, Del Beccaro actually tried to stop the counting of Brown’s votes. Del Beccaro was swiftly turned down by the courts, and a Republican judge later tossed out the claim that Brown was ineligible to run. But no one in the GOP camp wants to be quoted on the absurdity of Del Beccaro’s actions because they don’t want to be attacked by the right-wing bloggers.

A more recent episode provided insight into the increasingly prevalent far-right views, when Mike Spence, a regular on the Flash Report, called Democratic Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez of Los Angeles a “fellow traveler” of the Communist Party in an online column.

Spence had been so dismayed by Schwarzenegger’s centrism that he tried to draft Mel Gibson to run for governor last year. Then, he wrote last month, “Next time you are in Sacramento and run into the Speaker, say these words ‘Kur-heiny’ and see what his answer is. Apparently that is part of a code exchange of the LA branch of the Communist Party USA. Disclaimer: Of course I don’t really want to imply that Nunez is a communist. That would be wrong. I don’t want to be accused of the horrible sin of ‘McCarthyism.’ Communists are very upfront about controlling all aspects of our lives in order to serve their statist ideology. In no way do I imply that Nunez and his fellow travelers are upfront.”

Asked about Spence’s comments, Fleischman responded, “Maybe I am missing something here. But why on earth would Mike Spence apologize to Fabian Núñez for calling him a ‘communist’? I mean, I guess it would be more accurate to call him a socialist, rather than a commie.” He then quoted Karl Marx, “To each according to their ability. From each according to their means,” and snapped, “Seems to me that Núñez lives by this infamous quote.”

Spence defended calling Núñez a communist fellow traveler by quoting Wikipedia’s definition, “A fellow traveler is a person who sympathizes with the beliefs of a particular organization, but does not belong to that organization.”

AS THE FAR-RIGHT PARTY LEADERS carp about Schwarzenegger, their stands frequently fly in the face of opinions gathered from Republican voters. Nowhere is this more evident than on global warming. Only one Republican in the Legislature voted for Schwarzenegger’s landmark climate-change bill of 2006, thanks to a daily drumbeat against it by new far-right California party leaders and bloggers.

Yet Schwarzenegger’s environmental policies and anti-global-warming efforts are overwhelmingly supported by the state’s Republican voters, 63 percent to 19 percent, in polling by the widely respected — and nonpartisan — Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). Schwarzenegger’s own private polls show much the same thing.

A PPIC poll over the summer showed 62 percent support among Republicans for unilateral state action, independent of the federal government, to control greenhouse gases, with only 33 percent opposed. Moreover, 71 percent of Republicans back an existing state law to require automakers to sharply curtail tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases in cars, and a staggering 82 percent want the government to spend more to develop alternative energy sources for auto fuel — and to spend more money developing renewable energy such as solar, wind and geothermal.

Further illustrating how mainstream the opinions of California Republican voters are, 65 percent favor Schwarzenegger’s plan to roll back greenhouse-gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, and 69 percent favor the mandatory emission limits now being applied to electric-power, oil and natural-gas facilities.

The new, far-right leaders of the California Republican Party oppose all of these things. No wonder they don’t want independent voters mucking around in their presidential primary next February — they are already far out of step with their own voters, and even more so with California voters who don’t toe any party line.