California GOP Officials Clash Over Gubernatorial Race

The Republican Party has vowed a comeback. But when the California GOP meets Friday to reshape its party for 2010, they might just end up jeopardizing the one statewide seat they have a chance at keeping: the governorship.

A handful of state party officials are trying to change the rules to help gubernatorial candidate Stephen Poizner, California's insurance commissioner and party insider, beat back a challenge by Meg Whitman, the former eBay CEO and political novice, party sources told

Chairman Ron Nehring, state chair since 2007, sent a memo to party members Feb. 3 with a list of proposals to change party bylaws at its annual convention in Sacramento on Friday -- proposals party insiders say are nothing more than a power grab aimed at boosting Poizner's candidacy while ousting Whitman from the governor's race in 2010.

"Party rules forbid current chairmen from endorsing a Republican candidate if there is more than one in a race, but Nehring has made it very clear that Poizner is his choice," said a senior staff member with the California GOP who spoke to on condition of anonymity.

One of the amendments -- proposed by regional vice chairman Jon Fleischman -- seeks to change the board of directors so that any former chair can serve on it as opposed to only the immediate past chair.

Party members allege the change is meant to oust the immediate past chairman, Duf Sundheim, from the board and replace him with Michael Schroeder -- a former chairman who was criticized in 1999 for mismanaging party funds. Schroeder has publicly endorsed Poizner for governor.

Another amendment calls for a change in party structure so that the chief operating officer, who has always resided over the day-to-day party operations, answers to the chairman instead of the board of directors -- a group of elected officials from across the state. Sources within the California GOP claim that proposal is an attempt to give Nehring total control over party resources to advance Poizner's candidacy.

"Our chief operating officer Bill Christiansen is a strong person who doesn't answer to Ron. He answers to the board," said the senior staff member. "But Ron is now looking for a 'yes man' as he tries to stack the board against Whitman."

But the California GOP denies the existence of any scheme to bolster Poizner's candidacy.

"I have never participated in a meeting with some of the people pushing these changes in which that has been the particular topic discussed," Vice Chairman Tom Del Beccaro said in reference to the alleged plot surrounding Poizner.

Del Beccaro said at least one amendment -- to change the party's structure -- has "been in discussion for well over a decade" and was "brewing long before either candidate announced."

"Like many things in politics, there are many people with interests and they're not all the same," he added.

Nehring has reportedly rented out office space for Poizner at the party headquarters in Sacramento, and has given him a prime speaking spot at the upcoming convention.

"There was a lot of kick back on the part of the chairman on giving a lot of prime time to Meg," the source said -- though Whitman is also expected to speak at the convention.

"Nehring's treating the party likes it's a power club and not a political organization," added a former party operative who also spoke on condition of anonymity.

Despite repeated calls to party headquarters, neither Nehring nor Fleischman could be reached for comment.

The party is expected to vote on the bylaw changes at their twice-a-year meeting, which begins Friday at the Hyatt Regency in Sacramento and is intended to build the party's grassroots for the next election year.

Republican volunteers, donors, elected officials, candidates and state committee members will be in attendance, including some high-profile Republican leaders like Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford.

Another source said the party officials' alleged scheme is part of a larger move to maintain white male dominance of California's GOP. The state's GOP has never chosen a woman for the governorship -- or for a U.S. Senate seat or state party chair. If selected, Whitman would be the first female Republican gubernatorial candidate from California.

Whitman, a moderate Republican who has never run for political office, was CEO of the online auctioning Web site eBay from 1998 to 2000. She first entered politics when she served as an adviser to former presidential candidate Mitt Romney and then later to Republican presidential nominee John McCain.

"Whitman is the kind of injection we need in the Republican Party right now to break the mold of white male gubernatorial candidates that we've had," said Patrick Dorinson, a former communications director with the California GOP.

Poizner is also a pro-choice moderate from Silicon Valley, but unlike Whitman, he has been aggressively courting the far right wing of his party -- a party that is largely controlled by anti-abortion conservatives from the Central Valley and Southern California. Poizner claims on his Web site to have endorsements from 70 percent of California's Republican state legislators.

Whatever the outcome at this weekend's convention, party insiders say Nehring and others are more concerned with inner party politics that are self-serving rather than the long-term survival of the party -- one that needs to expand its reach after crushing defeats in 2006 and 2008.

"The purpose of a political party is to win elections, but they're driving the state off a cliff," said another source. "This is the same cabal of men who in 2006 wanted to deny the Republican endorsement to Arnold Schwarzenegger and instead give it to Mel Gibson before he had his wonderful trip down anti-Semitism lane. They're completely out of touch."

But Del Beccaro and others disagree, saying the party continually strives for diversity -- including the inclusion of women in their leadership.

"Some of the woman that are expressing interest this time around are very accomplished human beings with Republican values and that is what's going to make them great candidates," he said. "We're very excited about their interests."