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Republican Odd Couple Prepare To Face Off In New Primary Landscape

| August 19, 2013
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Gov. Jerry Brown is a formidable candidate for re-election with $10 million in the bank, favorable poll numbers and the advantages that go to any Democrat running for re-election in California.

Assemblyman Tim Donnelly addresses a tea party group in Solano County (Scott Detrow / KQED)

Assemblyman Tim Donnelly addresses a tea party group in Solano County. (Scott Detrow / KQED)

Two Republicans are ignoring those odds, though, and are already campaigning for governor. And they couldn’t be more different from each other. In fact, Tim Donnelly and Abel Maldonado represent the ends of the spectrum in California’s Republican Party.

When Maldonado was in the state Senate, he gave Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger the final vote he needed for the 2009 budget deal raising taxes. Schwarzenegger rewarded him by appointing him lieutenant governor.

Donnelly, on the other hand, is probably the most conservative member of the state Assembly. “You can put a gun to my head and I won’t vote for a tax increase,” he said earlier this month, while driving to a Solano County tea party meeting.

Donnelly used to be a member of the Minutemen, the self-styled vigilante group that  patrolled the U.S.-Mexico border looking for illegal immigrants. He supported repealing California’s DREAM Act, which makes some undocumented immigrants eligible for lower in-state tuition to public universities.

As for Maldonado, he regularly talks about his family’s immigrant roots, he supports a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, and he’s making a big push to diversify the Republican Party. “We as Republicans need to take our message and show a little respect,” he said during an interview in a downtown Los Angeles hotel.  “We need to go to the communities Republicans don’t go to. We need to go to East L.A. We need to go to the San Gabriel Valley. We need to go to Compton.”

Different Approaches To ‘Obamacare’ 

Maldonado is a businessman, but he’s also had a long career in Central Coast politics. He served as a mayor in Santa Maria, then was in the state Assembly and Senate before becoming lieutenant governor. Last year he ran for Congress as a moderate against incumbent Democrat Lois Capps and lost.

But he’s still holding on to the center. Take Obamacare. Opposition to President Obama’s signature accomplishment has been a key Republican tenet since the measure became law in 2010. While California has created a state-based health insurance exchange and expanded Medi-Cal, many Republican governors across the country are fighting the measure and refusing to pass similar laws. Maldonado wouldn’t join them. “Do I believe Obamacare is going to work? I’ve  questioned it,” he said.  “And I continue to question. But it is going to happen, it’s going to move forward. So let’s let it be to see what happens with it.”

Donnelly, on the other hand, told a group of 60 tea party members that the federal health care law is a “Trojan horse to full-blown socialism.”

“I will do everything in my power to stand on the border of California and keep the federal government and its army of agents from coming here to force you to do something you don’t want to do,” he said as the audience burst into applause.

Will Top-Two Primary Make Candidates Change Tactics?

2014 will be the first time California’s new top-two primary system goes into effect for a statewide race. Republican and Democratic voters alone won’t be nominating their party’s candidates. Instead, Democrats can vote for a Republican, Republicans can vote for a Democrat, and the top two vote-getters will advance to a November runoff – regardless of party affiliation.

What type of candidate does the new system help most?  Dan Schnur,  director of USC’s Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics, said last year’s local and congressional races showed that relying on your base alone won’t work. “If all you do is talk to your best friends, you’re not going to go very far,” he said.

And Schnur rejects the conventional wisdom, saying, the top-two system doesn’t necessarily help moderates or hurt conservatives. “A candidate from the base of his or her respective party can reach out across party lines, if they find an issue on which to do so.”

Donnelly is convinced taxes are that issue.  “When we’re fighting in the trenches and we’re champions of the average hard-working Californian, people forget we’re Republicans. And they realize we’re on their side.” The conservative said he’ll avoid campaigning on the social issues that have tripped up tea party candidates running for statewide office in places like Missouri and Indiana in recent years. “When we go off track and start talking about issues that have nothing to do with our future or economy or the average person’s concerns, that’s when we lose them.”

A Hard Line On Realignment

The new primary system is in place largely because of Maldonado. Schwarzenegger agreed to help place it on the ballot in exchange for Maldonado’s support of the governor’s 2009 budget. Maldonado said he’s confident it will produce a moderate, down-the-middle nominee.

And yet Maldonado is positioning himself as a hard-liner on one issue: crime and prison reform. He’s made opposition to Gov. Brown’s prison realignment plan, which redirects low-level offenders to county prisons, a centerpiece of the early campaign. Even as Brown battles federal judges to avoid releasing 9,000 prisoners from state prisons, Maldonado called the governor “anti-incarceration.”

Maldonado was blasted by the NAACP earlier this year for a press conference he held featuring a blown-up mug shot of a frightening-looking African-American accused of murder. Problem was, the suspect’s release from prison had nothing to do with realignment.

The NAACP called it a “Willie Horton-style” tactic, but Maldonado said he won’t back down. “If I was going to do it all over again, maybe I should have (used) the picture of the 14-year-old girl sodomized by this person. Maybe I should have put pictures of the victims that were murdered by these people. And if I do another one soon, that’s what I’ll be doing,” he said.

The California primary is still 10 months away. And at least one other candidate may join the race — former U.S. Treasury official Neel Kashkari, who ran the $400 billion effort to rescue financial institutions after the 2008 economic collapse.

Whichever Republican prevails will be rewarded with this: the chance to take on a powerful, well-funded incumbent who will boast of balancing the state budget after years of huge deficits.

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About the Author ()

Sacramento bureau chief Scott Detrow covers state government, politics and policy for KQED News and its statewide news program, The California Report. Before joining KQED, Scott reported on Pennsylvania's natural gas drilling boom for NPR's StateImpact project. Reach Scott Detrow at sdetrow@kqed.org.
  • Richard Winger

    California used the same type of primary ballot in 1998 and 2000, except that the top vote-getter from each party went on to the general election. In the blanket primary of 1998, all the candidates from all parties were on the same primary ballot and all primary voters used that same ballot. The Republican gubernatorial nominee of 1998 turned out to be Dan Lungren, who was pro-life and conservative on both social and economic issues.

  • Skip Conrad

    I like Tim Donnelly. But I also wonder why Tom McClintock is not going to run. He did very well in that farce recall election, scoring some valuable points in the debates. Now a US Congressman, perhaps he has more national ambitions.
    Then there’s Tom Campbell, former Congressman, Harvard-educated attorney and UofChicago-educated economist, who lost primary for Senate to Carly Fiorina, who had far far less class. Which is probably why he wouldn’t run – he has too much class.