Who is Lanhee Chen, the California Republican candidate for controller?
On paper, Lanhee Chen seems like a perfectly fit candidate to be California’s top fiscal watchdog. The 43-year-old Bay Area denizen holds four degrees from Harvard; he teaches public policy at Stanford; he has deep policy experience working for both political parties; and he isn’t an average white guy. He was — literally — born on the Fourth of July.
But there’s an elephant in the room: He’s running as a Republican.
A Democrat has held the office of state controller since the 1970s, but Chen emerged as the top vote-getter in the June primary; he racked up about 2.4 million votes, or just under 40 percent of all votes cast. But it’s hard to say that that leaves him as the favorite for the general election. He faced a field of serious Democratic opponents who raked in about 60 percent of the vote combined and will face Malia Cohen, who serves on the state’s tax commission, like the last two controllers.
Chen isn’t like other Republicans running in races around the country this year. His experience has been firmly in the party’s moderate establishment, television punditry, and, more recently, academia. He’s not swearing fealty to former President Donald Trump, and never challenged the legitimacy of President Joe Biden’s election. His immigrant, minority background gives him a different perspective on how the party should posture itself, and how the controller’s office should work. And he’s daring to offer a different vision for his state’s dying Republican Party — even as it clings to pyrrhic victories in pockets of the West Coast.
That his party will listen to his pitch is dubious. But that the state’s voters will care is a bet he’s willing to take.
Who is Lanhee Chen?
Chen is quick to list the ways he’s different from other Republicans in California. Born to Taiwanese immigrants, he grew up in Rowland Heights, a neighborhood with a large Taiwanese American community about 25 miles west of Los Angeles, and embedded himself in a world of civics, speaking, and political nerdiness.
He founded his public high school’s chapter of the Junior State of America (a youth political education group), and competed in Lincoln-Douglas debate. While in college, he participated in Harvard Model Congress, an annual college conference that simulates how Congress works — while also rooming with future Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR). He says he felt motivated by his parents’ immigrant experiences to understand how American government worked.
“My parents didn’t have a family business to go into, they didn’t have a lineage,” Chen told me over a Zoom interview from his home in Mountain View, California, where he was recovering from a Covid-19 infection. “That mentality from a very early age was something that I took on, that you have to work hard, you have to live by the rules, and you have to do your best to succeed in a society that gives you a lot of opportunity to do so.”
He spent his post-college years as a political consultant, getting an education in advocacy at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank in 2003, before a law degree and PhD at Harvard.
He advised former President George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign on health policy around that time, and when Mitt Romney prepared a run for the presidency in 2007, Chen jumped at the opportunity. It was a short-lived campaign, but Chen’s political future was just starting: he taught for a year at UC Berkeley in 2010 before joining Team Romney again in 2011, for Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign as its top policy director. By then he was described as a “prodigy,” a “dynamo,” and the campaign’s “orchestra leader.”
“Here was a guy who was kind of wonky at heart, incredibly smart, and a very principled guy at his core,” Chen said. “We didn’t agree on everything, obviously. But at the end of the day, I was really, really fortunate to have that experience working with him.”
The two maintain a friendship, Chen said, and Romney emphasized Chen’s “invaluable” counsel in a statement to Vox that also endorsed his run for state controller.
By the time Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) launched his presidential bid in 2015, and the campaign hired him as a part-time policy adviser, Chen was already a fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution and teaching at Stanford. He remembers watching in disbelief at the roaring reception Trump received in the 2016 primary, and establishment Republicans’ inability to crowd Trump out.
“Trump came to the California party convention,” he said, “And I remember seeing the images of throngs of people who were around and near the hotel, just wanting to catch a glimpse of him. I remember thinking, This is different. And I don’t think I fully appreciated it at the time.”
Everyone knows what happened next. Chen, meanwhile, returned to Hoover and branched out into a new career path: media punditry. He became a political commentator for CNN in 2016, and frequented most of the Sunday morning shows. Before making a decision to run, he also wrote a column for CNN Opinion.
Now he’s running a race himself, attempting to carve out a path as a reasonable Republican without attacking Trump’s legacy or alienating the voters he still influences. That challenge was difficult in his primary race, and it will only get harder now.
Can a Republican win in California?
California is a uniquely difficult state if you’re a Republican politician aspiring for relevance. The California Republican Party has been razed in the last decade and exists mostly as a regional power, holding a few congressional seats inland and in Southern California, three mayoralties out of the state’s 10 largest cities, and a modest minority in the state legislature.
It’s almost cliché to mention, but no Republican has won statewide office since 2006, when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger won reelection. Registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by a nearly 2 to 1 margin, and in any given election year, self-identified independents can outnumber Republicans. Republicans recently eked out a second-place ranking in voter registration numbers during the flashy attempt to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom last year, but even with special rules that required a simple majority to oust the governor, Republicans fell 11 percentage points below the needed margin.
“For the last 20 years, the letter ‘R’ after a name is a scarlet letter in California politics,” Garry South, a longtime Democratic strategist and campaign manager in California, told me. “Democrats carried all eight statewide constitutional offices in 2010, all eight in 2014, all eight in 2018. And there’s no reason to believe that that pattern is going to change in 2022.”
Republicans are still competitive in the Central Valley and the sparsely populated rural mountainous communities of Northern California, as well as in the historic birthplace of Reaganite conservativism, Southern California, where Republicans managed to flip back three congressional seats after losses in 2018’s “blue wave.” But the state party has struggled to build any infrastructure to sustain a statewide effort. Both the party and candidates lack the money needed to sustain the years-long effort needed to persuade voters across the state.
“These are pyrrhic victories. The party’s death spiral is over, the body is there, but it’s a zombie,” Mike Madrid, the former political director for the CAGOP and a longtime Republican strategist, told me about the future of the party.
As is the case elsewhere in the US, Trump casts a shadow on the California GOP. No polls have captured Trump’s favorability in the state since the presidential election (when polls showed he had the support of nearly 90 percent of Republican voters), but the most energetic, activist members of the party are still willing to embrace the former president.
But while Republican candidates in red — and even some purple — states can find success by hewing close to Trump; that’s not going to work for Chen, who needs to win over Democrats and independents. That leaves him with a conundrum: He can’t count too much on the state’s Republican Party — though the party, along with Romney, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and the Los Angeles Times, has endorsed him in the race. He also can’t outright attack his party when he needs most of its voters to make the race competitive.
He’s attempted to find a middle path. On Fox News, he’ll attack Newsom’s handling of the pandemic, but not vaccination. He won’t say who he voted for in 2016 or 2020, and hasn’t spoken up aggressively against Trump, his efforts to overturn the 2020 election, or his crusade to elect election deniers to Congress and state offices across the country. He’s not embarked on an effort to revive conservatism, elect more Republicans, or rebuild the party of Lincoln and Reagan.
“I’m going to run my own campaign,” he said. “There are going to be a lot of other people on the ticket and running nationwide, but I’m going to focus on my message and delivering what I believe is the core set of my beliefs on transparency, accountability, and the value of good fiscal management.”
So far, he’s tried to keep his pitch tied to his qualifications. “The reality is that a good controller needs to be focused — not spending their time out worrying about issues that they have no control over — but really focused on how do we make the state work better? How do we make sure that we spend smarter?” he told me.
Madrid took a dim view of this strategy when speaking to me, arguing that if Chen aspires to successfully follow Govs. Charlie Baker (R-MA) and Larry Hogan (R-MD) as models for winning as Republicans in Democratic states, he needs to be willing to take aggressive public stances on Trump.
“Lanhee, as much as he’s been a student in everything else, gets an F, candidly, in the leadership and courage departments. Where was he when the country and the party needed him most? He was silent,” Madrid said. “Nobody cares if you can balance the checkbook or write checks better than anybody else when you failed to seize the obvious moment in history, which was to stand up and do the right thing. That’s what Californians and people are looking for.”
To be competitive, Chen will also need to ramp up his fundraising operation. So far, he’s raised about $3 million for the race. His Democratic rival, Cohen, has about $2 million so far.
South, the Democratic consultant, estimates that “to run a decent race for statewide office in California is about a $20 to 30 million proposition.” Los Angeles’s expensive primary for mayor — conservative Democrat (and former Republican) Rick Caruso spent $41 million, about $37 million more than his closest rival, for a second-place finish — shows that even massive fundraising or spending isn’t enough to win a race. But in a state as large as California, with many of the US’s most expensive media markets, and with Chen’s low name recognition, he is likely to need a lot more money.
Ultimately, Chen’s path to victory relies upon winning over all of California’s Republican voters, and putting together a coalition of independents and fiscally conservative Democrats large enough to overcome Cohen’s structural advantages. How big that coalition is will depend on turnout. Should November mirror the June 7 primary, in which participation was a staggeringly small 32 percent, a near-decade low, it is possible (though still unlikely) that Chen could eke out a surprise win.
Why Chen thinks he can break the streak
Chen knows the political wind is blowing against him, but he hopes voters look at him for his credentials. “The numbers are what they are. I’m not going to sit here and try and spin you and say the numbers are not that bad,” Chen said. “But my message is aimed at voters across the political spectrum. And we’re going to be talking to people who may be self-identified Democrats or independents who lean Democrat. But the reality is, they don’t like the direction our state is headed. And they want some accountability for it.”
That pitch is part of the reason the Los Angeles Times’s editorial board endorsed him, but it will be a tough sell. Part of his strategy has been to assure people he’s focused on being a great controller, and isn’t pursuing this job to later seek a higher office. But when he talked to me about his campaigning so far, he sounded more like a candidate for governor or senator, listing out stories of conversations with Californians frustrated with rising costs of living, homelessness, and crime — things he’d have no control over as controller.
He told me he planned on spending more time in Southern California, especially among Asian American and Latino voters, because those are the folks he grew up around, and because both groups have shifted toward Republicans in recent election cycles and felt disenchanted with Democratic incumbents.
He is also hoping that the general frustrations with incumbents and parties in power — before the Supreme Court decision ending the constitutional right to an abortion, the trend of governing parties losing badly in midterm elections meant a red wave seemed to be a given — may help him in a midterm year. The race is also a sleepier contest traditionally, so he might benefit from voters willing to split their vote down the ballot. There’s certainly precedent for that happening, like in 2006, when Schwarzenegger won reelection and Republican Steve Poizner won the insurance commissioner’s race, while Democrats swept all other state offices and retained majorities in the legislature.
Ultimately, whether Chen wins or loses will be a signal about the future of the California Republican Party. He’s possibly the best candidate Republicans have put up in the state in years. But if the most moderate, clean-cut candidate can’t put the party back on the map, can anyone?