CALIFORNIA POLITICS

State GOP, emerging from denial, is taking steps to recovery

State GOP leaders are acting like they want to recover by changing their ways

Sixteen years ago a prominent Republican stopped me on the street to complain that his party was in denial. It was falling fast, he said, with little hope.

The California GOP was "like an alcoholic," the pol asserted. "We all want him to recover, but he's got to want to recover. And before that can happen he has to hit bottom. We all think he's hit bottom, but he doesn't."

The man was talking about the party's addiction to gay bashing and gun worshiping, to feeding off anti-abortion and illegal immigration causes. That resulted in big hangovers on mornings after statewide elections.

At the time, the Republicans' share of voter registration had fallen to 35.5%. Today, it's down to 28.1%.

Has the GOP hit rock bottom? Maybe not. But party leaders, at least, no longer are in denial. They're acting like they want to recover by changing their ways.

Not all Republican politicians — by any stretch — have changed their views on so-called social issues. But no longer are these polarizing topics the first things spewed from most of their mouths. The tone is much softer.

Their focus is on what always has scored for Democrats: bread-and-butter issues such as the economy, education and public works. That's seasoned with the Republicans' traditional call for government fiscal restraint.

And in the state Capitol, at least, the GOP is changing its face.

"We're getting away from being the white man's party," says Allan Hoffenblum, a former GOP consultant who publishes the nonpartisan California Target Book, which handicaps legislative and congressional races.

"There's a conscious effort to change the brand. [What's] frustrating California Republicans is the national brand. It's why we can't elect a Republican U.S. senator. The voters may like our candidate, but they don't want to empower a bunch of Mitch McConnell and Ted Cruz types."

In Sacramento, the latest party face-changing was the unprecedented selection of a woman to lead Republicans in the state Senate. Sen. Jean Fuller, 64, a former Bakersfield schools superintendent, will take over as minority leader in November.

She'll replace Sen. Bob Huff, 61, of Diamond Bar, who's termed out next year and intends to run for Los Angeles County supervisor. To his credit, Huff helped change the GOP dialogue that was scaring many voters.

Fuller will be the first woman to head either party in the Senate. "The time is right for a woman to lead the Republican caucus," she says.

Last year, Assembly Republicans selected Kristin Olsen, 41, of Modesto as their leader. She succeeded another woman, Connie Conway of Tulare.

California Democrats, of course, have been embracing both sexes and changing demographics for decades.

Last year, Assembly Democrats installed the first lesbian — Toni Atkins of San Diego — as speaker.

In the Senate, Democrat Kevin de León, 47, of Los Angeles was elected the first Latino president pro tem in 131 years.

Republicans have some catching up to do, but they're starting.

Last November, three Asian-American Republican women were elected to the Legislature: Sen. Janet Nguyen of Santa Ana and Assemblywomen Ling Ling Chang of Diamond Bar and Young O. Kim of Fullerton.

In fact, there's now a higher percentage of Republican legislators who are women (28%) than Democratic women lawmakers (25%).

The GOP also has eased up on gays and lesbians.

At its recent state convention, delegates voted overwhelmingly to formally recognize a gay group, the Log Cabin Republicans.

In November, two Republicans who favor same-sex marriage — David Hadley of Manhattan Beach and Catherine Baker of San Ramon — won Assembly seats.

"Whenever you can see the ocean from a legislative district, you need candidates who are a little more socially moderate and environmentally sensitive," says California Republican Chairman Jim Brulte, a former GOP leader in both legislative houses. "David Hadley and Catherine Baker reflect their districts."

Brulte is a leading therapist helping the GOP recovery.

"You have to start by understanding that your party has been declining for decades," Brulte says. "The last time we carried California for a Republican presidential candidate or elected a Republican U.S. senator was 1988."

Republicans haven't even elected a statewide officeholder since 2006.

"Investors expect a return on their investment," Brulte says. "Who are the investors? People who write checks. People who walk precincts. People who make phone calls. They weren't getting a return on their investment. Now our donors and volunteers are happy and enthusiastic."

Last year the party won back enough legislative seats to escape its previous super-minority status.

Brulte has been building a farm team to run for higher office. A majority of county supervisors now are Republican. A plurality of mayors and city council members also are Republican. But, of course, they can run in these nonpartisan races without being burdened by the "R" brand.

"We've worked hard to recruit candidates who reflect their communities," Brulte says. "In a neighborhood election, the candidate who most looks like, sounds like, has the shared values and the shared experiences of most people in the neighborhood tends to win."

Republicans are on the right track. And if they keep on it, who knows? They might even return to relevancy in Sacramento. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

george.skelton@latimes.com
Twitter: @LATimesSkelton

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