National Republicans aim to help Lanhee Chen break California GOP losing streak

California has not elected a nonincumbent Republican to statewide office since 2006. Lanhee Chen, the GOP nominee for state controller, is betting he can make some history.

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(Courtesy Chen campaign)

“Our campaign is really about competence and about defending the taxpayers — it’s not about ideology,” Chen said Thursday in a telephone interview with the Washington Examiner. “I don’t think there’s a Right way, or a Left way, to be a good controller.”

Chen might be right. The job, as designed, is largely apolitical.

The controller is supposed to monitor California finances and spending, like a watchdog or inspector general, ferreting out waste, fraud, and malfeasance to ensure taxpayers get the most bang for their buck and are not stuck with expensive bills for government incompetence. For instance, that scandal involving the mishandling of $20 billion in state money designated for unemployment insurance? That’s an issue ripe for oversight by the controller. And as Chen indicated, Democrats and Republicans alike (and independents) support good government.

But whenever candidates for office declare ideology irrelevant to their campaign, it’s usually because partisanship is working against them. And in deep-blue California, where President Joe Biden defeated then-President Donald Trump 63.5% to 34.3%, Chen has quite the uphill climb, as Republican insiders in the state conceded in interviews.

“People are unhappy with the direction of the country, and while Newsom is cruising to reelection, there may be a desire to put some kind of check on total Democrat control,” said a veteran Republican operative in California, requesting anonymity so as not to undermine Chen’s bid. “That said, I wouldn’t’ bet more than a buck.” Gov. Gavin Newsom, a potential 2024 presidential candidate, is considered a shoo-in for a second term despite being forced into a recall election last September, a Republican-backed effort that fell flat.

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Rob Stutzman, a Republican consultant in California who served in former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration, also is suspect of Chen’s prospects. But Stutzman was a bit more charitable in his overall assessment of Chen’s bid versus Democrat Malia Cohen, a black woman who is a member of the California Board of Equalization, a panel that adjudicates tax disputes.

“The statewide math in California is impossible for Republicans. Defying the numerical disadvantage would require an overwhelming financial advantage and a deeply flawed opponent,” Stutzman said. “Having said that, to the extent California voters actually do get exposed to Lanhee, I think they’ll find him a refreshing kind of GOP candidate that they haven’t seen the likes of in a long time.”

Newsom and Democrats running for statewide office in California are largely expected to cruise to election and reelection this fall, despite the red electoral wave building across the country as Biden’s job approval ratings sink. Chen, however, has caught the attention of Republicans inside and outside the state as a candidate who might defy the odds.

The 44-year-old son of Taiwanese immigrants grew up in the southeast Los Angeles County community of Rowland Heights and went on to earn four Harvard degrees. Chen was policy director of Sen. Mitt Romney’s (R-UT) 2012 presidential campaign before moving back to California to teach at Stanford University. He has relationships across the party, including with the old network of Romney donors. Those connections are poised to net Chen the outside help he needs to pull an upset on Nov. 8.

Republicans involved in national politics are forming a super PAC to bolster his campaign, with details likely to emerge in August. “A major independent effort is coming together for Lanhee Chen,” a GOP operative involved confirmed. “Does Lanhee have a chance to win with the national environment? Yes. But he’s also a great candidate.”

Unclear as yet is whether this new super PAC will be set up as a California political organization, subject to state campaign finance laws, or a federal political action committee. Meanwhile, a California general purpose independent committee that functions like a federal super PAC already exists and is expected to support Chen’s campaign. The group, Californians Supporting Lanhee Chen for Controller 2022, currently shows minimal resources but could beef up its efforts after Labor Day.

California election law is similar to the federal statute in that it forbids groups like this from coordinating with candidates’ campaigns. Californians Supporting Lanhee Chen for Controller 2022 did not respond to a request for comment.

When candidates for state office in California file their next fundraising disclosure, Chen estimates he will report $2.2 million to $2.4 million in cash on hand. That’s chump change in a state that is geographically vast and has multiple expensive media markets. But Chen is aggressively raising money while husbanding resources for the post-Labor Day home stretch.

And although he exudes optimism, Chen, through his comments on politically charged issues, has proven he understands the challenges he faces running as a Republican in California.

After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade with Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Chen issued a statement affirming his support for abortion rights, which are enshrined in the California Constitution. A few days later, Chen revealed he did not vote for Trump in the 2016 or 2020 general elections, nor would he support him in 2024.

“There are a lot of people who I believe would be better for the job than the former president,” he told Cal Matters in an interview.

So, why is Chen optimistic?

The Republican’s internal polling suggests his message has legs and that Cohen is vulnerable. Although it’s impossible to separate politics and partisanship from a political campaign, Chen believes the duties of the office of state controller are unique, offering him an opportunity to overcome the high hurdles Republicans face when running for statewide office in a state that is among the most Democratic in the nation. To prove his point, Chen emphasized the endorsement he received from the Los Angeles Times’s liberal editorial board and Andrew Yang, an independent who ran for president as a Democrat in 2020.

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“The way we assemble a coalition of Republicans, Democrats, and independents is talking about what, as controller, I can do to bring accountability to state spending,” Chen said. “The idea that Californians want a typical politician to be controller is going to be proven incorrect.”

The Cohen campaign did not respond to a written request for comment made through the Democrat’s website. But Andrew Acosta, a Democratic operative in California, predicted Chen’s bid would fail.

“I’m sure he is well qualified,” Acosta granted. “His problem is simple: wrong team. I don’t see a path unless he rolls $25 million, and even then, it would be hard.”

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