George "Duf" Sundheim, donning his "Duf Sundheim" navy blue fleece jacket and khaki pants, strode down the center aisle inside the Destiny Fellowship Church, wading into the crowded pews at a tea party meeting in the northern reaches of California.
He'd been asked about immigration. Sundheim, a Republican candidate for Senate and thoughtful lawyer from Palo Alto, carefully explained that he supported a "path to legal status" for the estimated 11 million immigrants in the country illegally.
A bearded man stood up from the back of the room and yelled an expletive. The seats began to empty.
"Obviously I cleared out the room tonight," Sundheim told the few who remained.
The heated exchange laid bare an uncomfortable reality facing Republican candidates running to replace the retiring Barbara Boxer as well as for other statewide political offices.
They need the votes of tea party loyalists, who are among California's most politically active conservatives. But embracing them too tightly may drive away Republican moderates and independents, whose support is essential if they hope to have any shot at winning in a state thoroughly dominated by the Democratic Party.
Tea party supporters face an equally frustrating dilemma. They are often forced to vote for Republicans who, they believe, have failed to stand firm on the tea party's core beliefs of a limited constitutional government, free enterprise and fiscal responsibility in Washington and Sacramento.
"We aren't necessarily trying to build up the Republican brand," said Marilyn Snyder, 72, of the Redlands Tea Party Patriots, meeting at the Mill Creek Cattle Company restaurant in Mentone. "There are a lot of people in this group who despise the Republican brand."
GOP Senate candidate Tom Del Beccaro spoke to the Redlands Tea Party at their monthly meeting at the restaurant Thursday night, and received a much warmer reception than Sundheim did up north. Del Beccaro preached about the benefits of a flat tax which, he said, would simplify the tax code, combat corporate welfare and allow for the Internal Revenue Service to be slashed.
Del Beccaro, a Walnut Creek business attorney and regular on conservative talk radio, criticized GOP rivals Sundheim and Assemblyman Rocky Chavez of Oceanside for supporting a pathway to legal status for immigrants here illegally and for refusing to sign a pledge not to raise taxes. Why vote for them, he asked, if they are just going to parrot the ideas of the Democrats in the race, state Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris and Rep. Loretta Sanchez of Orange County.
The Republicans trail Harris and Sanchez in the most recent polls and are far behind when it comes to raising money. Voters will get their first opportunity to compare the Republican Senate candidates side-by-side during a GOP radio debate on San Diego station KOGO-AM (600) Monday evening.
Both Del Beccaro and Sundheim are former chairmen of the California Republican Party, making it hard for them to avoid being yoked with the label of GOP "establishment" — an anathema to tea party loyalists.
Santa Monica businessman Al Ramirez, a tea party crowd-pleaser who challenged Boxer in 2010 and Sen. Dianne Feinstein in 2012, falling far short both times, also jumped into the Senate race last week. Adding another Republican to the mix threatens to fracture the GOP vote even more, increasing the odds that Harris and Sanchez could be on the ballot in November. Under California's top-two primary system, the two candidates who win the most votes in the June primary, regardless of party, face off in the general election.
The California Republican Party for years has weathered steady declines, and as of last year accounted for just 28% of the state's registered voters, compared with 42% for Democrats, according to the secretary of state's office. At the same time, the tea party's influence in the state GOP has become robust.
A USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll released in September found that 48% of Republicans in California, and an equal number of self-identified conservatives, supported the tea party movement to some degree.
Fresno City Councilman Steve Brandau, an active member of the Central Valley Tea Party, said the movement continues to grow across California, especially in the state's inland midsection, but it still doesn't have the numbers to get an ideologically pure conservative elected as U.S. senator, governor or any other statewide post. So they've switched tactics.
"We were chasing our tails by getting involved in races that we had no chance of winning, Senate races, other statewide races. I think we learned our lesson from that," Brandau said.
Instead, grass-roots tea party groups are focused on city council and county supervisor races, raising money for presidential candidates and trying to mold the platform of the state Republican Party, which has a Tea Party California Caucus.
Brandau decided to run for City Council because "just standing on the street corner complaining was not really working for me any more."
To the south, members of the Bakersfield Tea Party are lobbying the Kern County Board of Supervisors to privatize county libraries instead of imposing a sales tax increase to support them.
"The tea party is alive and well. It's just in a different format," said member Tom Pavich. "You're not seeing large rallies.... That doesn't mean we're not out there."
The loosely-affiliated, scattershot tea party movement born after President Obama was sworn into office in 2009, fueled in part by outrage over the Affordable Care Act and mounting federal deficit, has evolved into a more focused network of conservatives here in California, said John Barry, a state coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots.
"It's kind of gone mainstream," Barry said. "We've moved from the angry conservative to having an organized organization."
Barry said Del Beccaro or Ramirez should get tea party support, as will Republican congressional candidate Paul Chabot, who narrowly lost to Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Redlands) in 2014 and is now shooting for a rematch.
UC San Diego political scientist Gary Jacobson said the rising influence of the tea party in the state GOP, even at the grass-roots level, will only accelerate the decline of the party's influence, because they are "culturally, ideologically and demographically out of touch with a large majority of Californians."
"This is a disaster to the Republican Party," Jacobson said.
Paty Newman, a former member of San Diego County's Republican central committee, said she left the Fallbrook area tea party years ago after seeing members trying to elevate their political stature as well as party members rallying around issues outside the core ideals of the movement.
Her distaste only grew after tea party protesters in 2014 blocked buses filled with immigrants and their children bound for the U.S. immigration facility in Murrieta. Newman said the protest should have been focused on the Obama administration, whose policies allowed the influx to happen, not immigrant children.
"It was just rude," Newman said.
Tea party firebrand and former state Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, a Republican from Twin Peaks, said the GOP leadership in California and Washington are the only ones responsible for any impending doom.
Donnelly ran for governor in 2014 against Democratic incumbent Jerry Brown, and he blames the Republican Party leadership for throwing its support behind GOP candidate Neel Kashkari. Kashkari gained his first big public notice as a leader of the Bush administration's bank bailout program, and spending $4 million on his campaign, only to be soundly defeated by Brown.
Now is not the time for California Republicans to back a politically safe candidate in the Senate race, Donnelly said. In the presidential race, GOP voters have been invigorated by New York real estate developer Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
"It's a missed opportunity. This is an insurgent year," Donnelly said. "They want to hold a cross up, like to a vampire, if anything smells even a whiff of politicky."
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