Like flowers blooming in the spring, Republican candidates for governor have begun to pop up during the past few weeks.
But there’s a key difference between the folks jumping up this time and many who ran in gubernatorial primaries of the past two decades:
There are no billionaires among the early entrants. There is no one with the financial wherewithal of people like airline mogul Al Checchi, former Congresswoman Jane Harman (whose big money came from her late husband’s electronics business), financier William Simon, developer Phil Angelides, software innovator Steve Poizner and former eBay executives Steve Westly and Meg Whitman.
There is also no one with the political experience of a Poizner or a Westly or an Angelides, all of whom held statewide office before running for governor.
And certainly no one with the combination of experience, savvy and fundraising ability of Gov. Jerry Brown, whose approval ratings are high in every poll after reducing the huge state deficit he inherited at the start of his latest term.
In fact, the coming run for governor looks like a cakewalk for Brown, who was gallivanting around China as his would-be rivals started making their pitches. It is similar in one way to Democrat Dianne Feinstein’s 2006 U.S. Senate re-election campaign, where only one Republican bothered to enter the primary — the far-right former state legislator Richard Mountjoy of Monrovia, who never had a chance.
It is similar in other ways to Feinstein’s re-election drive last year, when several Republicans vied for the GOP nomination against her, but none was adequately funded for a serious run and all were previous political unknowns who soon faded back into obscurity. Anti-autism activist Elizabeth Emken won the GOP nod, but lost the election by a 63-37 percent margin — meaning she drew virtually no votes beyond the bare-bones Republican base.
The early list of prospects to run against Brown next fall is short so far: Abel Maldonado, a onetime state senator and former lieutenant governor appointee who has not formally declared, has some name identification around the state despite having been beaten soundly by Democrat Gavin Newsom when trying for the lieutenant governor’s office on his own in 2010.
State Assemblyman Tim Donnelly of Hesperia also has a bit of a public profile — but not for positive reasons. This early enlistee in the anti-undocumented immigrant Minutemen organization is best known for trying to carry a Colt pistol onto an airliner at Ontario International Airport in January 2012.
Donnelly’s run for governor (he was the first to declare) comes after getting three years probation when he pleaded no contest to reduced charges of carrying a gun into a city without a permit and carrying a prohibited item into a sterile area. Donnelly has never admitted he had no concealed weapon permit when caught with the gun in his attaché case.
Also lurking in the Republican weeds is Orange County Supervisor John Moorlach, a former county treasurer.
One statewide GOP official summed up the prospective candidates in two words: “serious problem.”
The short list already has produced its share of intra-party sniping and maneuvering. Billionaire physicist Charles Munger Jr., son of the partner of renowned investor Warren Buffett, says he will donate to Maldonado’s campaign in gratitude for Maldonado’s fathering the state’s three-year-old “top two” primary system. There were no limits on what Munger could contribute to the initiative campaigns for top two and two other measures he funded last year, but there are strict limits on what he can give directly to Maldonado this time.
Maldonado is also derided by the GOP’s leading anti-tax advocate, Grover Norquist, head of the advocacy group Americans for Tax Reform and the main purveyor of the “no new taxes” pledge many Republicans sign before running for office.
Noting that as a state senator in 2009, Maldonado voted for a temporary tax increase, Norquist told a reporter that “If you’re a Republican who raised taxes, how can anyone trust you? The state’s worse off because he did it.”
Besides that, Maldonado last year proved unable to defeat the vulnerable Democratic Congresswoman Lois Capps in a district with far less of a Democratic plurality than her party’s current statewide edge.
It’s almost absurd to think Brown, who has vied with the likes of ex-Gov. Pete Wilson, billionaire Whitman and a sitting attorney general in Evelle Younger, worries much about the Republicans now lining up.
If Poizner or some other billionaire capable of writing personal checks to finance a major campaign were to enter the list, Brown might be given some pause.
But right now he looks as secure as any 2014 candidate in America, even though he hasn’t said a word about running.
—Reach syndicated columnist Tom Elias at [email protected]