Like teenagers on vacation with their parents, Republicans from blue states and Democrats from red states don't want to be seen with party elders.
"I don't spend a lot of time thinking about Mitt Romney," Elizabeth Emken, the Republican who will face off against Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein in November, recently told me. "That's the truth. I've never met him."
Emken thinks she has a shot at winning the election precisely because she is not the pick of the GOP establishment. "We've had millionaires and billionaires and CEOs and movie stars," said Emken in a not-so-subtle swipe at former top-of-the ticket Republicans Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina and Arnold Schwarzenegger. "We need folks running."
Emken won't attend the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., this week. "I don't think there's any concrete reason I should go," she said.
When you're running as a Republican in a one-party (not yours) state, it's every candidate for herself. And make no mistake: California is home to more liberals than conservatives. Democrats represent about 43 percent of voters, compared with the GOP's 30 percent; they hold every statewide office and control both houses of the Legislature.
Undaunted by the challenge of winning congressional seats in California, GOP House Whip Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield took a break from fundraising in San Francisco last month to tell political reporters of his plan. McCarthy showed up with three "young guns" — candidates who can raise money and build an organization and he says, have a solid shot at winning in November. He is working to rebuild the Republican bench one seat at a time. The "young guns":
1. Colusa County Supervisor Kim Vann is challenging Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove (Sacramento County). "It's no secret I kept off the social issues in the primary," said Vann, who describes herself as "personally pro-life" but "I don't believe that I should be making that choice for other women."
Vann also departs from the GOP base in her refusal to sign Americans for Tax Reform's infamous no-new-taxes pledge. She doesn't plan to vote for tax increases, she said, but also, "I don't think it's good government to tie your hands."
2. Former Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado is challenging Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, although Capps might not be his most serious problem. "The people are mad," said Maldonado, that after years of persistent state budget shortfalls, Sacramento somehow found the money for a high-speed rail. He thinks voters are ready for change. Maldonado's biggest headache could be the GOP. Despite his high profile, the state Republican Party would not endorse him in the June primary.
Still, he won.
Now he is at odds with GOP stalwarts who have issues not only with his support for abortion rights and refusal to sign the no-new-taxes pledge but also with his sponsorship of the state's new "top two" primary law that pits the top two vote getters against each other in November, regardless of party.
When I asked Jon Fleischman, founder and publisher of the conservative website FlashReport, if he wanted Maldonado to win, Fleischman answered, "I have no comment."
3. State Sen. Tony Strickland doesn't face an incumbent in his bid to represent Ventura County in Congress. Strickland did sign the no-new-taxes pledge and opposes abortion rights, but like Vann and Maldonado, he is happy to stand with Republicans with different views. That's the McCarthy formula: Pick young candidates who want to get things done.
All three of McCarthy's proteges like to emphasize their pragmatic side and their ties to their district. They're not parachute-in politicians. Fleischman rejects the suggestion (mine) that base Republicans should spend less time enforcing party purity and more time reaching out to moderates. Whitman backed public funding of abortions and gun control, Fleischman argued, so don't say the GOP excludes moderates. And moderate Republicans don't necessarily win.
Good point, but to woo voters, Republicans have to show a willingness to work with others, even cut deals. They've got to appeal to middle-of-the-road types. They can't come across like the GOP hopefuls who, at a Fox News presidential primary debate last year, all agreed that they would reject a deficit-reduction deal, even if Democrats offered $10 in spending cuts for every $1 in tax increases.
On the other hand, Californians have reason to be angry. The Golden State has the third highest unemployment rate in the nation, and Sacramento has been running in the red for most of the last decade. Gov. Jerry Brown is asking voters to approve a tax hike because state government is broke while he's pushing a $68 billion high-speed rail project. Voters look to Sacramento and Washington and see rampant dysfunction.
Voters "want someone new," McCarthy told me. "They just don't want someone who looks crazy."