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Ron Nehring

The Nightmare Scenario

In politics, warnings are more useful than predictions.  As the 2014 campaign begins to come into focus, there are some important warning lights flashing on the Republican dashboard.

Nationally, the environment for 2014 is turning increasingly favorable for Republicans.  President Obama, who defines his party nationally, has seen his approval rating plummet from 52% to 41% over the last 12 months. The GOP has surged in generic ballot tests since the Obamacare rollout disaster.  Nearly half of Americans believe Obamacare will make health care worse.  Democrat Senators facing tough re-election fights are conspicuously distancing themselves from the unpopular President.  Experts widely predict the GOP will hold the House of Representatives and have an improving shot at taking the Senate and sending Harry Reid into the Minority Leader’s office.

Yet, while Republican strength surges nationally, in California we are too close to a nightmare scenario where the statewide ticket is so weak that some Republicans give up and throw in with Gov. Jerry Brown, creating disarray and denying Republicans the opportunity to take advantage of a favorable national environment.

Let me be clear: We are not at this point today, and such a scenario is not inevitable.  But it is too real of a possibility to ignore because it has already happened: to Democrats in New Jersey.

While Gov. Chris Christie is facing challenges today, in 2013 he was widely seen as invincible, a shoo-in for re-election.  Against this backdrop, more than 50 Democrat elected officials abandoned their own party and endorsed the incumbent Republican governor.  It’s hard to envision a more disruptive signal to send to your own people than to openly back the opposition leader.

More recently,  in New York, state GOP leader Ed Cox sent a letter to Republican elected officials two weeks ago encouraging them to “consider the record” of incumbent Democrat Governor Andrew Cuomo, another favorite to win re-election, before making an endorsement.  It’s an unenviable position to be a state party chairman forced to plead with leaders in your own party to hold off in surrendering to the opposition.

In California, we are now weeks from the opening of the filing period for federal and state offices.  Yet, there are currently no plausibly competitive Republican candidates for five statewide offices: Lt. Governor, Attorney General, Treasurer, Controller and the non-partisan office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

For the top of the ticket, following the end of former Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado’s campaign, the two likely Republican governor candidates, conservative Assemblyman Tim Donnelly and former Bush Treasury official Neel Kashkari, have never before sought, much less won, statewide office.

Among Sacramento Republicans it’s become annoyingly posh to openly predict a Brown landslide and the loss of all statewide offices to Democrats for the second consecutive cycle.  The lobbyist community is in the tank for Brown.  Meanwhile, Republican leaders in the legislature have been using words like “commend” and “praise” when describing Brown actions on the state budget and water.

The reasoning was described by one Assembly Republican operative this way, “There are no state wide races that help us. How about taking about smaller races that actually push the ball down the court?”

This is the prevailing wisdom among some Sacramento Republicans these days: the Governor and statewide offices are lost, so forget about the statewide dynamic and just focus on a handful of competitive races for the legislature and Congress.

However, we recently saw what happens in California when the top of the Republican ticket is obliterated in a landslide, and it’s not pretty.

Two years ago, Mitt Romney’s campaign wrote off California from Day 1, investing no voter contact resources here.  Romney lost the state by 23 points, dragging down with him a long list of Republican elected officials and candidates, including three incumbent Members of Congress (Dan Lungren, Brian Bilbray and Mary Bono Mack), plus a number of Republican legislators.

With a non-competitive top of the ticket, Republican performance in California for state legislative districts was the worst since the Chester A. Arthur mid-term election wipeout of 1882, and produced the smallest California Republican Congressional delegation in modern times with just 15 of 53 members.  Even when Republicans were trounced in the post-Watergate 1974 election, the state had 15 GOP House members, out of a total delegation of 43.  Republicans are now a smaller percentage of the state’s House delegation than in the election immediately following Watergate.

History shows us that the top of the ticket defines the party and drives turnout and activism by donors and volunteers alike. The notion that Republicans can make significant gains in localized races if the statewide ticket crashes by 20 points is not supported by history.

The nightmare scenario is not a fait accompli, and it is clear the state Republican Party will be in a far stronger position to support candidates in 2014 than it was in 2012.  Chairman Jim Brulte, a proven strategist in legislative races, has quickly retired the debt he inherited on taking office and is rebuilding organizational capacity.

Concurrently, Jerry Brown wishes he was as strong as Andrew Cuomo is in New York.  57% of New Yorkers say they want Cuomo for another four years.  Yet, according to the USC Dornsife poll in November, just 33% of Californians support Brown for another term, while 37% want someone else.  Not exactly resounding numbers.

Brown’s strength is rooted in perception among those in the Sacramento political class, not hard data from the rest of California where Brown’s disengaged style and lax communications operation shows its weakness.

Now is the time not to give in to self-fulfilling prophecies, but to challenge them.  The fate of Republicans up and down the ticket, and therefore the future of our state and Congress, depends on it.