As Republicans seek to improve their standing among Latinos and women, fresh controversies in California could further damage the party with both groups.
On Monday, a GOP gubernatorial candidate’s inflammatory rhetoric likening illegal immigration to war came to light. The previous day, a conservative website on California politics was launched, featuring a raunchy photo-shopped image of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — a depiction that prompted the most powerful Republican congressman from California to remove his column from the site.
The trouble came as the state Republican Party has been trying to claw its way back to relevance, with GOP voter registration in California at a historic low and every statewide office held by Democrats.
At the California Republican Party’s recent convention, attention was showered on a new class of candidate that included many women and minorities. The grooming of a diverse bench, party leaders said, was key to the rebound effort.
The party has long argued that its problems with Latinos and women were caused by tone, not policy. And on Tuesday, some Republicans warned that the fallout from the latest uproar — notably from remarks by GOP Assemblyman and gubernatorial candidate Tim Donnelly — could be devastating.
“I am just appalled,” said Rosario Marin, a Latina from Huntington Park who served as U.S. Treasurer under President George W. Bush. She has endorsed Donnelly’s main GOP rival, former U.S. Treasury official Neel Kashkari.
“It’s an embarrassment not only to himself but to the party and the efforts I am involved in at the national level … to elect Latino Republicans,” she said. “This … makes my job that much more difficult.”
Republicans have struggled with Latinos and women both nationally and statewide.
In the aftermath of the party’s 2012 presidential loss, a scathing self-autopsy found that broadening the GOP’s appeal was critical to its future, and national leaders invested $10 million in outreach efforts, including in California.
Latino voters in this state increasingly joined the Democratic Party after voters passed Proposition 187. That 1994 ballot measure, championed by then-Gov. Pete Wilson, denied taxpayer-funded services to illegal immigrants (it was later gutted in court).
And women voters here have been moved by the same social issues that have driven them away from the GOP elsewhere.
In California in 2012, although President Obama won the state by 23 points, he won women by 30 and Latinos by 45, according to exit polls. In 2010, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown beat Republican Meg Whitman by 13 points, but won women by 17 points and Latinos by 33 points, exit polls showed.
“Look, we’re already down to 29% registration statewide,” said Reed Galen, a GOP strategist in Orange County who also worked for Bush. “If we want that number to grow, we have to find ways to talk to Latinos about the issues we all care about.”
Donnelly, the GOP front-runner according to public opinion polls, has stood by his 2006 speech, delivered when he was leader in the volunteer Minuteman border-patrol organization. In it, he said illegal immigration would lead to a fight comparable to the Civil War.
In the address, delivered at a rally in Temecula, he used Alamo imagery and said criminal gang members in the U.S. illegally amounted to an insurgency. He exhorted his audience of about 200 people to rise and join his fight to stop illegal border crossings.
“I am not backing away from the fact that we are in a war,” Donnelly told reporters in Sacramento on Tuesday, after reports of the speech caused an outcry. He said he did not believe the remarks would hurt his prospects among Latino voters.
Kashkari and a handful of Republican officials criticized the lawmaker’s sentiments.
“Once again Assemblyman Donnelly’s comments are outrageous and divisive,” Kashkari said in a statement. “This is not who we are as Republicans and is not who we are as Californians.”
Connie Conway, leader of the Assembly’s Republican caucus — Donnelly’s nominal boss in the Legislature — also chastised him.
“Mr. Donnelly’s opinions are his and his alone and are not representative of the Republicans in this [Capitol] building,” she said in a statement to The Times.
Senate Republican leader Bob Huff called Donnelly’s speech “offensive and hurtful.”
The Pelosi flap on the new Breitbart CA website prompted House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield to ask that his column be taken off the site.
Republican strategists said that while the imagery was “problematic,” they viewed it as less significant than the immigration issue.
Breitbart-related sites are known for their outrageousness, Galen noted, and the Pelosi portrayal was an attempt to gain attention. “They succeeded,” he said.
But the Donnelly case was different. “Tim Donnelly is a living, breathing candidate for the governorship of California,” Galen said, and “has the potential to damage the party a great deal more.”
State party chairman Jim Brulte, a former legislator, did not respond to a request for comment.
At the state party convention Brulte hosted in Burlingame in March, two Republican outreach groups, California Trailblazers and GROW Elect, were lauded for their work to diversify the GOP bench and improve the party’s straits.
GROW Elect trains Latino Republican candidates for local office, and Trailblazers recruits legislative candidates.
“The Republican Party, its brand and its image must be renewed if Republicans want a better path forward in California,” Trailblazers CEO Jessica Patterson said at the convention.
Rudy Mendoza, who is running for an Assembly seat in the Central Valley, was among the current class of Trailblazer candidates.
“We hope to be the new changing face of the Republican Party,” he said. “If we’re ever going to change it, it starts right here.”
A spokesperson for Trailblazers declined to comment on Donnelly’s 2006 speech. GROW Elect did not respond to requests for comment.
Political experts said that while such efforts will help, taking a firm stand when Republicans make inflammatory statements is more important.
“I would argue that if the party had reacted appropriately and aggressively to Donnelly’s comments, that would be a much more significant step,” said Adam Mendelsohn, an advisor to former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“You have to realize the power and the symbolism of being willing to openly acknowledge the problems that people see within the party,” he said, “and until people are willing to do that, all the change is going to be incremental.”
Times staff writer Chris Megerian in Sacramento contributed to this report.