California Republicans walked into their weekend convention facing a persistent question: What direction should they take to stop the ongoing decline of their power in the state? Three chaotic days later, there was little resolution.
Concern about the party's future, decisions being made by its leaders and how inclusive the state GOP truly is — topics typically only whispered about at party gatherings — were openly discussed in Anaheim this weekend, spurred by a series of contentious events at the convention, which ended Sunday.
Stephen K. Bannon, a former top advisor to President Trump, criticized former President George W. Bush as the most destructive leader in the nation's history and injected a nationalist tone into the biannual gathering. College Republicans selected an ally of conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos over a centrist as their new leader in a contentious fight. And debates over resolutions pitted the so-called establishment against tea party members and other outsiders.
"I currently feel like a stranger in a place where I used to feel home," said Francis Barraza, a top aide to San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, one of the state's most prominent Republicans. "I feel like the leadership has emboldened people that are not working toward what we've been working toward: being a party that's more inclusive, more forward thinking … I feel like we have reverted 10 years."
By their nature, political conventions function partly as debate clubs, and disagreements among factions are frequent. Democrats also saw internecine party warfare at their state convention following the bitter 2016 presidential primary. But the level of tension at the state GOP fall convention reached new heights this weekend, a reflection of a similar battle taking place nationally among Republicans — between nationalists and the establishment.
In California, the problem is compounded by the party's lack of power. About 1 in 4 voters identifies as Republican, according to state election officials, and Democrats control every statewide office and super majorities in both houses of the Legislature. The chances of a Republican winning one of the top two prizes on next year's ballot — governor or U.S. Senate — are slim.
The party's top priority in 2018 is defending seven Republican members of Congress who represent districts that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, four of which are within driving distance of the Anaheim hotel where the convention took place. Just one of those members appeared publicly at the convention — Rep. Mimi Walters of Irvine. Some state lawmakers purposefully avoided it.
"There was just too much strife here to attend," said an aide to a state legislator who asked for anonymity to freely discuss the matter. "I've been doing this for over 15 years, I've never seen it this bad, the infighting, the circular firing squad."
The biggest flash point of the weekend occurred Friday, when Bannon lashed out at Bush and Sen. John McCain.
Several attendees said that while they appreciated the bulk of Bannon's remarks — notably his focus on how a disparate coalition of GOP factions united to win Trump the White House — they were dismayed by his criticism of Republican leaders.
"They're both heroes for our country," Mario Guerra, California Republican Party treasurer, said of Bush and McCain. "I was disappointed in some of the reactions from people here too."
Guerra noted that a "lone wolf" yelled "Hang him!" when Bannon spoke about McCain.
State party Chairman Jim Brulte, who has been close with the Bush family, said that while he did not appreciate Bannon's attack on the former president, he agreed with nearly everything else in his 40-minute speech, as did dozens of delegates across the GOP spectrum he surveyed afterward.
Brulte and other GOP leaders said they were optimistic about the party's prospects in upcoming elections, citing Democratic overreach in Sacramento and the upcoming state gas tax increase, which will hit voters in their pocketbooks.
"The Democrats control California," he told delegates on Sunday. "They own it, they broke it, and we are the fix."
But a new hurdle could be be on the horizon. The state GOP's biggest benefactor in recent years, Charles Munger Jr., has told party leaders that he plans to scale back his financial support, according to several of his allies who asked not to be identified to discuss their private conversations.
Munger demurred when asked about his plans.
"I'm interested in winning elections, and I don't tell people what I'm willing to do to win a political battle in advance," he said.
Supporters were despondent about the prospect.
"We need Charles Munger in the worst way, now more than we ever had before," said Brandon Gesicki, a longtime advisor to former Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, adding the party would have had "zero credibility" in recent years without Munger's efforts.
After the weekend's activities, which included unsuccessful efforts to call for repeal of Proposition 14, a 2010 ballot measure to create the top-two primary that Munger funded and Maldonado wrote, and to censure GOP legislators who voted for the state's cap-and-trade program, Gesicki said he was rethinking his involvement with the party.
"I definitely feel close to being finished if this is the direction this party is going," he said.
While Munger has been a devoted backer of the California GOP, he has also long been a polarizing figure in the party.
"Munger didn't rescue the GOP. He bought the party, and he's corrupted it by doling out money to the most Democrat-like candidates and causes," said former Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, a tea party favorite whom Munger opposed in two campaigns.
Donnelly and Gesicki got into a heated argument about Munger at a hotel bar Friday. It was one of several public spats over the weekend, leading GOP strategist Alex Burrola to compare the convention to the "Red Wedding" scene in "Game of Thrones" — a celebration that ends in a massacre.
"I've seen a lot of different kinds of ideological movements and tug of wars come and go," Burrola said. "I've never seen something this ugly, and frankly to me, repulsive. It's really disheartening because there is so much potential and people do want another choice in California aside from Democrats. But what are Republicans offering? We're not offering anything hopeful. We're just offering ugliness."
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