California's Republican Party is buoyed by Trump, but struggles for relevance at home

California Republicans were in a festive mood at their weekend convention in Sacramento.

They toasted their airy new downtown headquarters with views of the Capitol and decorated with pictures of Ronald Reagan and other memorabilia from the party’s storied history in the state. They reelected leadership that had turned a practically bankrupt party into one that raised $19 million last year. And they celebrated having helped elect a Republican president for the first time in more than a decade.

“Isn’t it nice to win?” Rep. Devin Nunes of Tulare asked hundreds of delegates and guests during a dinner speech Saturday night.

But for all the cheer, the state GOP still faces a hard reality. It has not elected a statewide politician in more than a decade, its numbers are dwindling, Democrats have a supermajority in both houses of the Legislature and, after three consecutive election cycles where Republicans ceded the top posts in government to Democrats, it has no major prospects to run for governor or Senate next year.

“Here in California, the state GOP has hit rock-bottom,” said Jon Fleischman, a conservative blogger and the state party’s former executive director. “But as delegates huddled across from the state Capitol, where we have no influence, the atmosphere was almost festive because of President Trump and how much he has riled up the left.”

One of the most celebratory events was a reunion of Trump supporters on Saturday afternoon. Trump lost badly to Democrat Hillary Clinton in California, but he had an active base of tens of thousands of volunteers here who called voters in battleground states. Republicans were hopeful these people, many of whom were new to politics, would turn their energy to California elections.

“Our job is to build a structure that wins elections and wins elections right here,” said Tim Clark, Trump’s California campaign manager who is now serving as a liaison between the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services. “We’ve done our job nationally. Now we have to focus on our state in 2018.”

Throughout the weekend, Republicans focused on an argument similar to one that propelled Trump to victory in unlikely states such as Wisconsin and Michigan: While Democrats have insisted they have made life better for their constituents, ordinary Americans are still struggling.

On Sunday, Assembly GOP leader Chad Mayes highlighted a series of videos with the tagline “California deserves better.” Featuring a female narrator skewering Democrats for talking about their achievements, the videos focus on the ongoing problems of poverty, crumbling infrastructure and high housing costs.

Attendees also heard from Rep. Darrell Issa of Vista and conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, who were critical of Trump at times during the presidential campaign but praised some of his acts since taking office.

But notably absent from the convention was any major Republican candidate laying the groundwork for a gubernatorial or Senate run in 2018.

San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, whom many GOP activists would like to see mount a run, slipped into the convention quietly and briefly on Friday. Pressed by reporters, he denied once again that he plans to run for governor.

California Minutemen founder and former Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, who mounted an unsuccessful gubernatorial bid in 2014, said he was considering running again. He blasted the party leadership for not stopping the Democrats from achieving a supermajority in both houses of the Legislature.

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“The California GOP, everybody who is in leadership should be fired. They should resign in shame because in the year of Trump … they lost,” he said. “They lost their only purpose for existing, which was to resist the supermajority, or prevent the supermajority of Democrats in the state, and they lost seats. It’s unbelievable that that could possibly happen in such a sweep of the country.”

The Republican Party establishment helped knock Donnelly out in the primary in 2014 because of his controversial statements and views, but then did nothing to help the party’s eventual nominee, Neel Kashkari, who faced impossible odds against incumbent Gov. Jerry Brown.

In 2016, with low name recognition and sparse party support, Republican candidates were shut out of the U.S. Senate race, and two Democrats faced off for the first open Senate seat in more than two decades.

It was the first time since the enactment of the state’s “top two” primary — in which the top two vote-getters move on to the general election regardless of party — that a Republican failed to make the cut. That could happen again in 2018, though elected officials were hopeful that the party had learned its lesson last year.

“The Republican Party last election, for whatever reason, didn’t want to engage,” said Assemblyman Rocky Chavez (R-Oceanside), who briefly ran in 2016 for the seat vacated by Sen. Barbara Boxer upon her retirement. “But I think we have learned from the non-engagement. We will not do that again. We will have somebody.”

Party Chairman Jim Brulte, reelected by a near-unanimous voice vote Sunday morning, said that since he took over the party in 2013, he has worked to strengthen its grassroots organization and to stock local city councils and school boards with quality GOP candidates, part of a strategy for a statewide GOP rebound.

But he conceded that the party had not reacted quickly enough to demographic changes that led, in part, to the GOP’s declining share of the state’s voters. Republicans account for just 26% of the electorate in California, so even candidates who receive every GOP vote in the state come in far short of what’s needed to win, he said.

“You have to have as many Republicans on board as possible, then you have to go out and make your case to independents and Democrats,” Brulte said. “There’s no conservative way to walk a precinct. There’s no moderate way to put up a campaign sign.”

seema.mehta@latimes.com

christine.maiduc@latimes.com

For the latest on national and California politics, follow @LATSeema and @cmaiduc on Twitter.

Times staff writer Phil Willon contributed to this report.

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