Senate Race a Symbol of GOP Woes: a virtual unknown is the only one looking to unseat Feinstein

July 24, 2005

Michael Finnegan – Times Staff Writer: Bill Mundell has carved a lonely spot for himself in California politics: The wealthy technology executive is the sole Republican openly weighing a serious run to unseat U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein. “If I make a decision to go forward with this, I will give Dianne Feinstein a run for her money,” said Mundell, whose last campaign, a state Assembly race, ended in defeat 19 years ago.

California faces no shortage of Republicans elbowing their path to statewide office. More than a dozen are raising money to run next year.

Yet none of the state’s hundreds of GOP elected officials has stepped forward to take on Feinstein, a Democrat whose moderate record has kept her largely in sync with California voters — and whose popularity as she seeks a fourth Senate win has given pause to aspiring challengers.

Into that void has stepped Mundell, 45, a West Hollywood millionaire whose rumblings about a Senate run have left strategists in both parties asking the same question: Who is he?

The absence of a well-known candidate to run against Feinstein highlights the Republican Party’s continuing struggle to overcome the Democratic dominance of California that solidified a decade ago.

“It’s an uphill battle,” said Gary Jacobson, a UC San Diego political science professor who described prospects for a broad Republican recovery in California as bleak.

A fast rise in the ranks of independent voters — now 3.7 million in all — has eroded both major parties in California. But registered Democrats still outnumber Republicans, 7.2 million to 5.7 million.

Because independents typically side with Democrats, voting patterns reflect an even stronger tilt. Democrats hold eight of 10 statewide offices. By wide margins, they outnumber Republicans in both houses of the Legislature and in California’s delegation to Congress. President Bush lost California by 1.2 million votes to Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry.

That said, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has lifted at least some of the Republican gloom. Though mired in political setbacks of late, he broke his party’s losing streak in the 2003 recall and could prove formidable in a reelection fight if he opts to run.

Yet take away the Hollywood superstar, analysts say, and Republicans still lack a field of well-known, viable contenders for such top jobs as governor and U.S. senator.

Some potential candidates — Republican members of Congress — have been loath to give up safe seats and Washington seniority for an uphill fight. The high cost of campaigning in the vast state adds to the party’s difficulty in mounting a comeback and enhances the appeal of wealthy newcomers such as Mundell who can put up their own money.

Among the party’s main troubles is lasting damage from the Latino backlash against former Gov. Pete Wilson’s push for Proposition 187, the 1994 ballot measure aimed at curbing public services for illegal immigrants.

Also thwarting Republicans: Statewide primaries tend to produce conservative nominees whose stands on abortion, guns and other matters put them out of step with the Democrats and independents who hold sway in general elections.

Since the mid-1990s, “we just haven’t had that many good candidates, and part of it is that the right wing is too conservative for this state,” said pollster Dick Dresner, a Republican who worked for Wilson.

In a U.S. Senate race, Republicans are further hobbled by the national party’s ties to the religious right, whose agenda is unpopular in California.

“I don’t care how good the Republican is, he’s going to get stuck with the national Republican platform,” said Tony Quinn, editor of the California Target Book election guide.

Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer beat her Republican challenger last year by a 20-point margin. Feinstein defeated hers in 2000 by a 19-point margin.

For all that, Mundell does not sound like a man facing the gallows.

“I don’t share the consensus point of view that Dianne Feinstein is unbeatable,” he said between bites of a vegetarian burrito at lunch in Beverly Hills.

“If I go in, I will go in to win,” he said. “And if I go in, I will go in because I feel I can win.”

Mundell is a world traveler: He grew up in Geneva, Switzerland; Bologna, Italy; Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa, Canada; Chicago and Washington, D.C.

His father, Robert A. Mundell, who teaches monetary theory at Columbia University, won the Nobel Memorial Prize in economics in 1999.

The son, who holds master’s degrees from Columbia in business and international affairs, moved to Los Angeles in 1984. Two years later, he ran for the Republican nomination to challenge Democratic Assemblyman Tom Hayden on the Westside.

Mundell, then 25, lost the primary. But he went on to success in the corporate world. In the 1990s, he was chief executive of the WEFA Group, an economic consulting and forecasting firm based in Philadelphia.

Now he is chairman and chief executive of Vidyah Inc., and chairman of TeckChek Inc. Both are offshoots of the online education empire set up by Michael Milken, the junk-bond titan, and Larry Ellison, co-founder of software giant Oracle Corp.

Over the last several years, Mundell has lived in a Century City condominium (“too sterile”) and two houses in Malibu, most recently a bluff-top residence once owned by Steven Spielberg (“stunning piece of property”).

He lives now in a West Hollywood town house but hopes to buy a home soon in the hills above the Sunset Strip. When he was married, from 1999 to 2001, Mundell and his wife planned to live in Bel-Air, but they divorced without moving into their house there. Mundell has no children.

Even in political circles, Mundell is not well-known. In February, he made the rounds at the state Republican convention in Sacramento. There, he voiced interest in taking a leading role in Schwarzenegger’s campaign to change the way congressional and legislative district lines are drawn.

“Bill Mundell clearly didn’t want to be just another big donor to something that Arnold Schwarzenegger was doing,” said Republican consultant Dave Gilliard. “His goal was to be a key driver.”

So Mundell launched Californians for Fair Redistricting, a committee that ran part of the petition drive to get Schwarzenegger’s proposal on the ballot. Mundell said he donated $325,000 to the effort. On Thursday, a state judge struck the measure from the November special election ballot, ruling that the wording circulated on voter petitions — which differed from that on the version submitted to the state attorney general — had not been approved by law. Mundell has not been accused of wrongdoing in the matter.

For Mundell, the redistricting campaign has served as an introduction to the same political circuit he would work in a Senate race. To promote the measure, he has appeared on conservative talk radio in Bakersfield, Fresno, Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego. He has met with newspaper editorial writers around the state.

The campaign has also put Mundell in touch with other wealthy men who collectively dumped more than $80 million of their personal fortunes into failed campaigns for statewide office. He had lunch with Michael Huffington (lost the 1994 Senate race), spent a few hours at the Beverly Hills home of Al Checchi (lost the 1998 Democratic primary for the governor’s race) and has set up a dinner with Bill Simon (lost the 2002 governor’s race).

All three men are testaments to the dangers of seeking high public office with little or no public vetting from previous campaigns. “Michael Huffington,” one of Feinstein’s blistering 1994 television ads declared: “the Texas oil millionaire Californians just can’t trust.”

“If you’ve never been vetted, God knows what comes up,” Dresner said. In a statewide race, opponents “want to destroy you. They want to wreck your life.”

As for his personal fortune, Mundell said he might put “seed money” and “maybe some closing money” into a Senate race but would rely on donors for the rest. “I’m not interested in buying a United States Senate seat,” he said.

It could cost $15 million or more to compete seriously with Feinstein. Federal contribution limits make it a daunting task for anyone to raise that much, particularly without a donor list massaged for years. Mundell declined to disclose his net worth, but his 2001 divorce papers list more than $10 million in assets.

Politically, Mundell described himself as not “easily categorized.” He supports the death penalty, but his stands on other social issues could rile conservatives who dominate the state party. Among other things, he favors stem-cell research and keeping abortion legal, except in some late-term cases.

“I’m in favor of a woman’s right to choose, provided that she makes the choice within a period of time that is consistent with, I think, consensus ethical norms,” he said. “So I am not a supporter of partial-birth abortion except in the case that the mother’s health is in danger.”

Mundell also opposes efforts by Bush and Republicans in Congress to amend the Constitution to ban gay marriage.

“In general, I have no problem with the notion of gay marriage,” he said. “I just think it needs to be carefully thought through in terms of the economic consequences.”

On fiscal matters, he called for making Bush’s tax cuts permanent. To cut the federal deficit, he said, he “would have wielded the veto pen a little more than the president has done.” He also took exception to Bush’s support for farm subsidies, a position that could stir trouble for Mundell with the Central Valley agriculture lobby, a key Republican ally.

“The Europeans and the U.S. government have kowtowed to the agricultural subsidies, when, in fact, what we should be doing is vastly reducing them over time,” he said.

To stem illegal immigration, Mundell said, the U.S. needs to promote economic growth in Mexico. He suggested that Mexico cut taxes and give landowners the right to drill for oil on their property.

“If I was a senator from California, I’d be in Mexico visiting with [President] Vicente Fox once a month,” he said.

He wondered aloud how many times Feinstein had traveled to Mexico.

“If I have a beef with Dianne Feinstein, my beef is that she has not exploited the office to the true potential,” he said.

Feinstein strategist Bill Carrick dismissed a Mundell campaign to unseat the senator as “a suicide mission.”

“She embodies what California values are,” Carrick said, “and represents them pretty dramatically in the Senate.”

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