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Tainted Congressmen harming GOP

It is, naturally, the fervent hope of California Republicans to expand or at least maintain their party’s influence in the state and its power in both Congress and the state Legislature.

But as they contemplate this task, activists can’t help remembering what followed the scandal surrounding the now-convicted and imprisoned ex-Congressman Duke Cunningham.

Even in a solidly Republican district like Cunningham’s, designed to make certain no Democrat could ever carry it, public disgust over Cunningham’s bribery-laced record was such that a Democrat almost took the seat in a June 2006 special election.

Plenty of Democrats thought their candidate actually won, claiming that “vote-flipping” by hackers manipulating electronic voting machines was all that kept the seat Republican.

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Other than hanging onto that seat by a thread, it’s hard to see what new party chairman Ron Nehring’s boosters meant when they told the GOP state party convention they expect him to “duplicate what he’s accomplished in San Diego County.” Nehring was the GOP’s county chairman there the last few years.

And what did the party accomplish there in that time? No legislative or congressional seat in San Diego County has been moved from the Democratic column to the Republican in many years.

If Nehring produces similar results statewide, he will prove the truth of a California political aphorism; namely that the only Republicans who can win in this state are moderates.

Indeed, that’s the kind of candidates immediate past party chairman Duff Sundheim of Palo Alto sought out. He helped Arnold Schwarzenegger become governor and he helped Steve Poizner become insurance commissioner in last year’s vote, giving Republicans a victory in a race for a lesser statewide office for the first time since 1998, when Bill Jones was reelected secretary of state.

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Sundheim’s tenure also saw Republicans hold onto all but one of their congressional seats. Their only loss was the seat of Tracy’s Richard Pombo, ousted over links to convicted influence peddler Jack Abramoff.

Under Nehring, Republicans will be hard-pressed to match those results, unless they can find solid primary election candidates to run against three congressional incumbents with sordid records of their own.

There is Jerry Lewis of Redlands, under federal scrutiny over his ties to lobbyists whose clients got hundreds of millions of dollars in earmarks during his years as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Lewis, the top House recipient of lobbyist donations last year, denies any improprieties, but the question arises: Why would lobbyists kick in all that money to a congressman not seriously challenged for reelection unless they expected something in return?

Just a little bit west of the Lewis district lies that of Gary Miller, unopposed for reelection last year. Miller allegedly saved thousands of dollars by deferring more than $3 million in tax payments due after his 2002 sale of 165 acres to the city of Monrovia. Miller, denying wrongdoing of any kind, also is under fire for inserting provisions into a major transportation bill benefiting a real estate developer who has been one of his leading campaign donors - at a time when he didn’t have to campaign because he ran unopposed.

And there is John Doolittle of Rocklin, who acknowledges that his lawyers have talked with federal prosecutors about his relationship with Abramoff. Doolittle also admitted to paying a fund-raising firm owned by his wife more than $67,000 from campaign funds, thus moving campaign cash into his family’s personal hands.

Of these three, only Doolittle had trouble getting reelected last year. For sure, all will have serious Democratic opposition if they run next year.

The best thing Nehring could do for his party would be to convince all three troubled incumbents to retire and let other Republicans have a go at winning their “safe” seats. The districts are solidly enough Republican that almost any untainted GOP candidate could hold them.

If all three choose to seek reelection, the party will have to hold its nose and put so much effort and money into saving them that there won’t be much left for challenges to sitting Democrats.

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So far, though, all three act like they plan to run, even if it means disaster for their party elsewhere in California - and maybe in their own districts, too.

Elias is author of the current book “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It.”