GOP leaders unsure how to widen appeal, but sure hate the governor

California Republicans cast about for ideas to revive their ailing party on Saturday, but struggled to define a clear vision for expanding their appeal beyond the dwindling ranks of older white conservatives.

At a glum gathering of Republican faithful, GOP leaders hewed to the party’s traditional call to scale back government, even as many voters demand just the opposite to stop the economy’s downward slide.

At the same time, the GOP leaders lamented their party’s failure to win over more women, Latinos, African Americans and younger voters, a shortcoming that points toward more defeats ahead for a party long relegated to firm minority status in California.

“Right now the party is pretty aimless,” said state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, a candidate for governor in the party’s June 2010 primary. “It’s got no strong leadership, and that’s got to be fixed.”


Poizner and his top rival in the primary, former EBay chief executive Meg Whitman, were supposed to be the main attractions at the state party’s weekend convention near the domed Capitol.

Instead, fury among Republicans over the $12.5 billion in tax hikes approved by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature led to fratricidal maneuvers to punish the six GOP lawmakers who voted Friday for the state budget.

While Poizner and Whitman each sharply denounced the tax increases, delegates went further, crafting a plan to censure the legislators for damaging both the California economy and, not incidentally, the party’s “brand name.”

In the end, a party committee scratched the censure but voted to deny party money to any of the six lawmakers who might seek reelection.

The panel also rejected a proposal by a few delegates to extend “a heartfelt and sincere apology” to former Gov. Gray Davis for promoting his 2003 recall. Schwarzenegger, the delegates said, has “proven to govern as a tax-and-spend politician precisely similar to the one he campaigned to replace in the recall election.”

Disapproval of the party’s own governor was a major theme at an event with little of the festive atmospherics usually on display at party confabs, apart from a life-size cutout of Sarah Palin that proved to be a popular photo stop.

“Arnold Schwarzenegger is like passing a kidney stone, and we’ve got another year to go,” said blogger Jon Fleischman, a vice chairman of the state party.

Rep. Darrell Issa of Vista, who bankrolled the recall of Davis, put it less colorfully. “Quite frankly, he’s failed to change the fundamental spending in California,” Issa said.

Schwarzenegger’s would-be successors joined in condemning the governor, without mentioning his name or specifying how they would have balanced the budget.

“The accountability for the budget lies at the leader’s feet,” Whitman said.

Schwarzenegger was a few thousand miles away at a governors’ conference in Washington. Braving the crowd’s snickers, however, was Sen. Abel Maldonado of Santa Maria, the Republican who gave the governor and his Democratic allies the last vote they needed to raise taxes.

GOP old-timers “can beat me up all they want,” Maldonado told reporters at a ballroom luncheon where he was surrounded by erstwhile allies who now see him as a traitor. Calling himself “the future of this party,” Maldonado said the party needs more Latinos to be its public face.

“If we don’t change, we’re going to go back to the old ways, and we’re going to continue to lose,” said Maldonado, who faulted the party’s hard line against illegal immigration. “They don’t get it on illegal immigration,” he said.

But a tough stance toward illegal immigrants was a given for the 1,250 delegates and guests at the convention. Carly Fiorina, a possible contender in the party’s U.S. Senate primary next year to challenge Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer, made them the butt of a joke in a hotel penthouse breakfast speech. When her family first moved to California, Fiorina recalled, her little brother asked, “Mommy, do they speak English there?”

“Wasn’t that prescient,” she joked, sparking a burst of guffaws.

A former Hewlett-Packard chief executive who left the troubled company with a severance package worth an estimated $21 million to $42 million, Fiorina also bucked the populist tide against lavish corporate salaries by denouncing President Obama’s effort to cap annual pay at $500,000 for leaders of banks taking federal bailout money.

“When somebody makes $40 million a year for failure, we cannot defend that,” she said. “On the other hand, I believe the solution should be, every CEO’s pay should be put up for shareholder vote each and every year. Let the shareholders decide.”

Including her severance, Fiorina was paid nearly $180 million during her five-year tenure at Hewlett-Packard. After she was forced out, shareholders sued, claiming that the board of directors should have let shareholders decide her severance.

A potential rival in the primary, state Sen. Chuck DeVore of Irvine, took his own turn at defying public opinion. In an interview, he denounced a landmark climate-change law that Schwarzenegger signed, a major plank of the governor’s reelection campaign. Supporters of the law, he said, were “trying to pursue this chimera of reducing greenhouse gas emissions” at the expense of jobs at a time of high unemployment.

Other Republicans offered ideas on how the party might reach beyond the conservative voters who share such views. Wayne Johnson, a party strategist, pointed to the party’s support for charter schools in urban areas and its alliance with black and Latino voters backing Proposition 8, the ballot measure that banned same-sex marriage.

“I really, truly believe that’s where we need to go,” he said.

But few Republicans suggested any fundamental refocusing of the party’s priorities. To Sen. Tony Strickland of Thousand Oaks, the party’s future lies in drawing younger voters through Facebook, Twitter and text messages.

“Instead of issues,” he said, “it’s more about the way we communicate.”