With eye on statewide race, Issa backs Schwarzenegger

Rep. Darrell Issa (R) is calling on California conservatives to unite behind embattled Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) as the congressman lays the groundwork, Republicans say, for a future statewide race of his own.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R) is calling on California conservatives to unite behind embattled Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) as the congressman lays the groundwork, Republicans say, for a future statewide race of his own.

In a letter sent earlier this month to party activists, Issa asks Republicans not to violate Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment, forbidding Republicans from attacking Republicans. And he voices strong opposition to efforts to rescind the state party’s endorsement of Schwarzenegger at its Feb. 26 convention in San Jose.

The letter was e-mailed and sent in hard-copy form to approximately 3,000 Republican activists, Issa spokesman Frederick Hill said. Hill said that he did not know the exact date the letter was sent but that it had gone out during the first week of the month.

“As we look forward to the 2006 elections, it is critically important that we unite with the same spirit and same courage that made the recall a reality,” Issa writes in the letter, referring to the 2003 special election that jettisoned Gov. Gray Davis (D) from office and led to Schwarzenegger’s election.

Issa spent more than $1 million of his own money bankrolling the recall, hoping to become governor himself. Shortly after Schwarzenegger announced his plans to run in the special election, the congressman withdrew from the race.

Several Republicans said Issa, whose 49th District sits between Los Angeles and San Diego, would still like to run for Senate or governor.

Issa finished a distant third in the four-man race to replace Rep. John Shadegg as House Republican policy chairman in early February.

“Issa is a guy who has political ambitions,” GOP consultant Grant Gillham said. “He wants to do more than be a congressman. He’s looking toward the future.”

Gillham added that Issa’s move is reminiscent of the defense by former Rep. Jim Rogan (R) of Gov. Pete Wilson (R) during Wilson’s 1994 reelection campaign. While Rogan was widely admired on the right, Wilson was often viewed as a centrist and untrustworthy to conservatives.

“What you’re not going to do is exploit a potential weakness in a powerful political figure for a short-term again,” Gillham said of Issa, who Gillham said had shown political acumen in getting behind the governor in a time of need.

The governor has drawn fire from conservatives for appointing a Democrat, Susan Kennedy, to be his chief of staff. That appointment, made late last year, followed voters’ rejection in November of a series of ballot initiatives Schwarzenegger had championed.

Republicans said Issa is unlikely to see his statewide ambitions realized in 2006, with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) on the path to an easy reelection for a third term.

But they noted that there could very well be an opening in 2008, in the gubernatorial race, or in 2010, when Sen. Barbara Boxer (D), who coasted to reelection in 2004, faces the voters again.

Hill, Issa’s spokesman, said the congressman’s letter was simply intended to put all the criticism of Schwarzenegger in perspective and to remind Republicans of all the good the governor had achieved.

Without offering much detail, the congressman’s letter asserts that the governor repealed the car tax, defeated a drive to give car licenses to illegal aliens, reformed the workers’ compensation system, saved the “three strikes” law and helped create a half-million jobs.

“This is the difference that has been made by having Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor,” Issa says. “But there is so much more to be done.”

Mike Spence, the president of the conservative California Republican Assembly and a frequent critic of the governor, dismissed Issa’s defense of Schwarzenegger.

Saying that the governor had turned his back on the conservatives who rallied behind him in 2003, Spence added that Schwarzenegger could face a primary challenge from anti-immigration activist Jim Gilchrist. (In fact, many, if not most, conservative voters supported Republican state Sen. Tom McClintock in the recall election.)

Gilchrist, one of the co-founders of the Minuteman Project, a group that patrols the U.S.-Mexico border and calls for tougher immigration controls, ran unsuccessfully in the recent special election in California’s 48th District. He generated considerable support among Californians fed up with the influx of illegal aliens.

Spence added that the disagreement surrounding the party’s endorsement of Schwarzenegger is odd, given that the state GOP rarely endorses candidates before the primary.

“The governor needs to reach out to conservatives because right now his programs speak more to liberal Democrats,” Spence said.