Op-Ed

California Republicans -- evolve or die

For the first time in 24 years there's an open U.S. Senate seat in the state, and there's no viable GOP candid

Delegates to the California Republican Party state convention that begins Friday in Sacramento should be asking themselves just two questions: Why can't they find an electable U.S. Senate candidate and how do they revive a state party that's become irrelevant?

This state went from red to blue because the California GOP lost its Reaganesque compass and, alarmingly, a willingness to discern between moral absolutes and generational evolution. Ronald Reagan brilliantly never let himself be the captive or defender of the status quo or party orthodoxy. He embraced broad principles and found ways to solve problems without selling out.

Voters, popes, presidents and even some elders have evolved. The state party has not and seems to be perversely proud of it. Political parties are meant to win elections, not be martyrs to lost causes of bygone eras.

For the first time in 24 years there's an open U.S. Senate seat in California, and the party should be ashamed it has no viable candidates. The problem is “us” not “them.” What are some of the changes the state party needs to make to return California to a truly two-party state?

The brand: The California party would be smart to develop a playbook from many accomplished conservative governors. Four full months after a stunning rejection of the president's policies, the GOP as a whole has no defining principles or programs. A work in progress, they tell us. Many GOP governors are having remarkable success in blue states. But here in California, sections of the party platform read from the Dark Ages. The state GOP is squandering a historic opportunity to rebrand with voters who don't trust any party, most of all a GOP held hostage to itself.

Immigration: Quit whining. President Obama masterfully outsmarted the GOP. No one should be more sensitive to the implications than California Republicans but they're still clueless. In 1994, I wrote an op-ed in this paper warning that by voting for Proposition 187, the party risked becoming the “anti-immigrant” party, alienating Latinos. Since Gov. Pete Wilson's reelection that year, cynically on the back of 187, there has not been a GOP governor or U.S. senator (Arnold Schwarzenegger was a faux-GOP anomaly).

Today, the party does not have a single statewide office holder. Now, another generation of Latinos is reminded that the GOP divides families, seeks to deny education and social services to children and believes in absurd mass or self-deportation of 3 million hardworking souls in our state. Even if the GOP wins battle against Obama's executive orders, the party loses voters, especially here in California.

Same-sex marriage: Get over it. Regardless of what the U.S. Supreme Court does, same-sex marriage is here to stay. California families are as diverse as its people. Stop alienating gays, lesbians, their families, friends and younger Californians. Even the Mormon Church supports LGBT anti-discrimination laws. Yet the state GOP's politically anachronistic and offensive platform still opposes them. It is on the wrong side of civil rights history.

The GOP loathes the “nanny state” but it is all too happy to be the “nanny party.”

Are there no courageous state Republican leaders to say we are better then this? The silence, especially among civil libertarians, is deafening, disappointing and cowardly.

Small government: The excesses and scandals of GOP big spenders makes it indistinguishable from the Democrats. Reclaim the Reagan doctrine that, however noble the goal, big government is inherently a threat to individual liberty. That includes the failed over-regulating administrations of Schwarzenegger and “too big to fail” budget-busting George W. Bush.

Inclusion: I was campaign manager and chief of staff to Bob Dornan, one of Congress' most conservative members in a swing Democratic district in the heart of largely Latino central Orange County. In his first election we were told to “not waste time and money” going after the black and Latino vote. We ignored that advice and Dornan won his marginally Democrat seat with 40% of the Latino vote in three successive elections. With year-round outreach and tangible deliverables, it still can be done. The GOP must court minority voters with substantive programs, not solely with targeted mail and condescending “Viva” campaign committees.

Opportunity society: If white children were largely products of single-parent families and had drop-out and youth incarceration rates similar to those of today's young African Americans, you can bet we'd have a serious strategy. The party of Lincoln should be vigorously working to reverse this alarming growth of an underclass in which so much young talent is lost and opportunity denied.

This is where the state GOP can act by creating a nonprofit foundation to teach, train, place and give back through non-government means to those who need help the most and probably dislike the GOP even more. Call them Ronald Reagan Centers.

Go where the party is not wanted. In places such as Chico, Oakland, Stockton, San Bernardino, Los Angeles, Compton and Indio, make a sustained commitment to the most challenged neighborhoods with at-risk youths and families. These Reagan Centers would be focused on small business, pre- and postnatal care, ESL, job placement, computer skills, public-private partnerships, HIV/AIDS and public healthcare, etc. This is a necessary, unorthodox commitment to people with whom the state GOP needs to rebuild allegiances.

Republicans in California under Reagan led a national revolution. Now they must lead their own evolution.

This lost competitive opportunity for the Barbara Boxer Senate seat must be a wake-up call — not for capitulation of principle but for the courage to push for realistic change. Otherwise, these biennial GOP conventions will remain insular social clubs instead of calls to action for what was once the nation's most influential state political party.

Brian O'Leary Bennett, a former member of the state executive committee of the California Republican Party and five-time GOP national convention delegate, has been a conservative activist for nearly 40 years.

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