Politics

California's GOP Senate candidates struggle for attention

The California Republican Party 2016 Convention in Burlingame, California on Saturday, April 30, 2016.
The California Republican Party 2016 Convention in Burlingame, California on Saturday, April 30, 2016.
Gabrielle Lurie/AFP/Getty Images

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When Republican Duf Sundheim showed up at the Democratic Party’s statewide convention in San Jose a few weeks ago, I was a little surprised to see him and asked him what he was doing there.

“Listening and learning,” Sundheim said, “and letting the people of California know that if I’m elected to the United States Senate I’m not just going to listen to the people who voted for me. I’m going to listen to all the people of California.”

Sundheim chaired the state party when voters recalled Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and replaced him with Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“I was chairman of the party for four years. I narrowed the registration gap between Republicans and Democrats to the narrowest it’s been since the 1930s,” Sundheim said. “I’m the chairman that actually won elections in this state.”

Duf Sundheim (R) chaired the state party when voters recalled Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and replaced him with Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Duf Sundheim (R) chaired the state party when voters recalled Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and replaced him with Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Lisa Pickoff-White/KQED

Of course he did that with more than a little help from Schwarzenegger, who changed the face and image of the party.

Conservatives have a disparaging name for moderate Republicans like Sundheim and Schwarzenegger: RINOs – Republican in Name Only.

But GOP consultant Hector Barajas calls that being flexible.

[Sundheim] is willing to take in other viewpoints and at the same time compromise where it’s needed,” Barajas said.

A second, more conservative former party chair

Sundheim is running against another former party chair, Tom Del Beccaro. Unlike Sundheim, Del Beccaro signed a pledge not to support higher taxes. He also favors a strict interpretation of the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms, and he opposes holding Senate hearings for Judge Merrick, Garland, President Obama’s nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Tom Del Beccaro seems to be a little rigid and at the same time a little more conservative in his viewpoints,” said Barajas. “And there’s a way to do it, there’s not a way. For Del Beccaro it seems a little more black and white.”

Republican Tom Del Beccaro signed a pledge not to support higher taxes. He also favors a strict interpretation of the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms
Republican Tom Del Beccaro signed a pledge not to support higher taxes. He also favors a strict interpretation of the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms
Lisa Pickoff-White/KQED

The centerpiece of Del Beccaro’s platform is a flat tax – one tax bracket for everyone while eliminating loopholes and tax breaks for corporations and others.

“John Kennedy cut taxes,” Del Beccaro says, trying to make his plan sound bipartisan. “Reagan cut taxes. Economics shouldn’t be partisan. It should be about understanding how economics work.”

Democrats see a flat tax as bad for the middle class. Del Beccaro says it would stimulate economic growth.

On immigration, Sundheim favors allowing eventual legal status for undocumented immigrants who meet certain guidelines. Del Beccaro frames it another way.

“The Republicans in Congress need to stop pushing for a comprehensive bill that will turn into a Christmas tree or more likely a Pandora’s box,” he says. “So they need to shelve the comprehensive reform plan, that’s number one.”

Instead, Del Beccaro would focus on visitors who arrive on a visa and then go underground and stay here illegally. That he says is a national security threat.

The wild card entrepreneur

The wild card in the U.S. Senate race was a last minute entry. Ron Unz, a tech entrepreneur best known for writing the ballot measure that banned bilingual education in California.

He’s for raising the minimum wage, and has been for a long time.

And at the state Republican party convention last weekend, Unz admitted – somewhat gleefully – that he’s hard to pigeon hole.

“You know sometimes I’ve been called a right-winger, sometimes a libertarian. Sometimes even a liberal,” Unz told me. “People can call me whatever they want. But I’m very clear where I stand on each individual issue.”

Republican Ron Unz is a tech entrepreneur best known for writing the ballot measure that banned bilingual education in California.
Republican Ron Unz is a tech entrepreneur best known for writing the ballot measure that banned bilingual education in California.
Lisa Pickoff-White/KQED

Except on climate change, where Unz claims ignorance.

“All these claims going back and forth in the media — this research group says absolutely true that climate change is correct. This other research group funded by different organizations says that ‘there’s no climate change.’ And I just don’t know.”

In other words, Unz sees no difference between research funded by fossil fuel companies and conservative think tanks and studies by the vast majority of climate scientists.

The biggest problem these three candidates face may not be the two Democrats who are well ahead of all of them in the polls. It’s fellow Republicans, like Ed Sachs from Mission Viejo.

“I would care more about the Senate race if I thought a Republican had a chance,” Sachs said at the state GOP convention recently. “But since I don’t believe that to be the case, I don’t want to say I don’t care. But perhaps I don’t care.”

Del Beccaro, Sundheim and Unz have less than a month to make voters care. The top-two vote getters on June 7 advance to the November runoff, even if they’re from the same party.

Our California Counts public radio collaborative will host a U.S. Senate debate on Tuesday, May 10, with the major candidates -- California Attorney General Kamala Harris, Rep. Loretta Sanchez, Duf Sundheim, Tom Del Beccaro and Ron Unz. The debate will air live on 89.3FM and stream on KPCC.org at 7 p.m. And check KPBS's Facebook page around 6:15 p.m. for a special live pre-show on young voters.

Series: California Counts

California Counts is a collaboration of KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio to report on the 2016 election. The coverage focuses on major issues and solicits diverse voices on what's important to the future of California.

Read more in this series and let us know your thoughts on Twitter using the hashtag #CACounts.