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Arch-conservative Jim DeMint's visit highlights divisions among Bay Area Republicans [The Oakland Tribune]

By Josh Richman, The Oakland Tribune
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Nov. 10--They feel besieged by a "socialist" alliance of mainstream media, Hollywood and academia. They don't believe in climate change. They oppose abortion, gay marriage and gun control. They never met a new tax they deemed justified. Many believe Democrats are either stupid, hate America, or both.

And they live in the belly of the beast.

About 500 of them let off some steam and thunderously applauded Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint this week when he spoke at the Conservative Forum of Silicon Valley, defending tactics that led to a federal government shutdown and joking about how conservatives are "an endangered species" in the Bay Area.

But with Republicans who once represented Silicon Valley in Sacramento and Washington long gone, DeMint's visit highlighted a raging debate among Bay Area Republicans over the best way to restore conservatism's luster in a region where it's almost anathema, a state where it holds little sway, and a nation where polls show the party's popularity cratering after October's shutdown over the new health care law.

Moderate Republicans say having a polarizing figure like DeMint come preach to the choir doesn't help spread the gospel to a wider audience.

"The fight I'm going to pick is one that unites my friends and divides my enemies, not one that divides my friends and unites my enemies," said former California Republican Party Chairman Duf Sundheim, 60, of Los Altos Hills.

To Sundheim, October's government shutdown over President Obama's health care law seemed "much more Pickett's charge" -- the disastrous Confederate Army maneuver at Gettysburg -- "than Normandy invasion."

It used to be that "economic issues united Republicans in Silicon Valley," said Tom Campbell, 61, the last Republican to represent the area in Congress. "Mistrust of government was never a dominant strain."

Valley Republicans like Campbell, Pete McCloskey and Ed Zschau were fiscal conservatives but social moderates with a libertarian streak.

The old pro-business GOP, Campbell said, would not have shut down the government over a health insurance law -- a tactic that tanked Republican favorability ratings while costing the economy billions. But that old GOP weakened as Bill Clinton, visiting Silicon Valley often before and during his presidency, positioned himself as a pro-growth Democrat not beholden to organized labor.

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"That created the cleavage between the social conservative and the pro-business conservative, because now you could be a pro-business Democrat," Campbell said. "And that cleavage left the Republican Party with a very serious problem."

Republican registration has plummeted in Santa Clara, San Mateo, Alameda and Contra Costa counties, and local contributions to federal campaigns skewed heavily to Democrats in 2004, 2008 and 2012.

Some archconservatives believe the GOP has abandoned them. Conservative Forum President Howard Myers re-registered as an American Independent because he felt the GOP marginalized people like him in 2012's election by doing things like trying to change convention rules to reduce the influence of tea party activists.

"They pissed me off," said Myers, 68, of Santa Clara, a retired high-tech quality director. "They said they don't want conservatives. I said, 'Fine.'"

But locally, at least, strict ideological purity is a detriment to Republicans seeking nonpartisan local offices, for which no "R" or "D" appears next to a candidate's name.

"We finally have a crop of people who want to seek elected office who are mainstream Silicon Valley people who just happen to be registered as Republicans," said Pete Constant, one of two Republicans on San Jose's 11-member City Council. That, he noted, is the most representation Republicans have had in the city in about 30 years.

In fact, he said, almost 100 Republicans now serve on Silicon Valley's city councils, school boards, special districts and so on -- about twice as many as when he took office in 2006.

Constant is fiscally conservative but pro-choice and supports same-sex marriage. "I'm not a right-winger by any stretch of the imagination," he said.

"As an elected Republican, it makes my job harder when you have these issues that push people to the extremes," he added.

Santa Clara County GOP Chairman Charles Munger Jr. said he's in "happy ignorance" of where local candidates stand on national issues.

The with-us-or-against-us tactics that DeMint and some local conservatives tout "are frankly stupid and completely misjudge the character of the American people," said Munger, 57, of Palo Alto. "The ultimate arbiters of whether they're Republican enough are the voters of their districts, not any committee."

Major policies change when a party wins an election based on those issues, which Republicans didn't in 2012, he said. And while he fervently wants the new health law repealed, neither party "has the right to shut down the government over an issue like this -- the people did not give us a mandate to do this."

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Still, many local Republicans agree that fiery rhetoric has its place.

"When the ship is going in a certain direction and it has a lot of momentum and you want to correct five degrees to the right, you point 90 degrees to the right," said tech venture-capital icon Floyd Kvamme, a prolific GOP donor who attended DeMint's speech. "You have to overemphasize the point so people start listening to you."

But an all-or-nothing approach to governance "is not helpful to building coalitions" that can turn the tide, said Kvamme, 75, of Saratoga.

The challenge for mainstream Republicans isn't to silence someone like DeMint, "but to outshout him and convince voters that their party is not too extreme," said Dan Schnur, a longtime GOP strategist who directs the University of Southern California'sUnruh Institute of Politics.

Neither party will succeed without reaching beyond its base, he said, but that is not the goal of DeMint or those who cheer him on.

"His job is to energize the most conservative voices in the community," Schnur said. "It's someone else's job to figure out how to win elections."

Josh Richman covers politics. Contact him at 510-208-6428. Follow him at Twitter.com/josh_richman. Read the Political Blotter at IBAbuzz.com/politics.

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(c)2013 The Oakland Tribune (Oakland, Calif.)

Visit The Oakland Tribune (Oakland, Calif.) at www.insidebayarea.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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