GOP splinter group launches candidate initiative

A new Republican group with close ties to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger unveiled plans during an all-star GOP teleconference this morning to find, educate and fund “electable” candidates for statewide office through a federal 527 political committee.

The California GOP has won only four of 24 statewide offices since 1994 and the California Republicans Aligned for Tomorrow, or CRAFT, is worried about a shallow bench, particularly as as mega GOP movie-star Schwarzenegger finishes his final term.

The teleconference featured former California Gov. Pete Wilson and CRAFT co-founders and major Republican funders Larry Dodge and Paul Folino, GOP congressmen Kevin McCarthy and David Dreier, and state GOP legislators Sen. David Cogdill and Assemblyman Mike Villines.

On the surface, the teleconference was all Republican sunshine and optimism.

But the formation of this group also sends a signal that some of the state’s major GOP players remain dissatisfied with the state Republican Party, which is struggling to get out debt and suffering big losses at the ballot. Dodge wrote a very pointed letter to the party early this year about its political and financial failings, and conditioned his financial contribution on the development of a plan for the party’s fiscal and political future.

California Republican Party Chairman Ron Nehring endorsed CRAFT during the press conference but he probably didn’t have much choice in the matter given the support of the major donors and Wilson.

CRAFT, a 527 formed last year by former California Republican Party Chairman and moderate Duff Sundheim, is also raising suspicion among conservatives who view it as an end-run around the right wing of the party. (Jon Fleischman, publisher of the conservative FlashReport, complained on his blog that he wasn’t even allowed to ask questions during the press conference.)

Schwarzenegger admonished the party last year that it must shift toward the center or die at the California’s political box office.

Sundheim rejected the notion that CRAFT would support candidates based on ideology.

“We will have two criteria to judge the candidates: quality and electability,” Sundheim said. “We will not make our decisions based on ideology.”

This is about “winning, not ideology,” added Assembly Minority Leader Mike Villines.

Winning is easy to understand. But what constitutes a “quality” candidate? And electability is, in many GOP circles, code for ideology.

The other problem for Republicans is that moderates of their party often lose primary elections that draw chiefly loyal conservatives to the polls. These conservative primary winners often lose lose in the general election, which attract far higher numbers of independent and moderate voters.

The formation of a 527 is curious, too.

fter all, there’s nothing stopping the California Republican Party or the New Majority Political Action Committee, of which Dodge and Folino are board members, from building a farm team of prospective statewide candidates.

But a 527 is a federal entity and not subject to California campaign contribution or spending restrictions, although it must disclose its donors and expenses. (Click here to look up CRAFT’s filings on the IRS web site.)

Dodge, Folino and the New Majority PAC are among those who donated $100,000 each, along with William Lyon of Lyon Homes, the San Diego Chargers and Baron Real Estate CEO William Bloomfield Jr.

As CRAFT’s CEO, Sundheim earned $20,833 in each of the first three months of 2008 plus expenses, according to the filing.

Lisa Vorderbrueggen