At state convention, Republicans try to chart a new way forward
SACRAMENTO — As California Republicans gathered here for their weekend convention, it was difficult to recall when the group that produced Ronald Reagan had slumped so low.
The party hasn’t elected a statewide candidate in seven years. It is awash in debt. GOP voter registration in the state is at less than 30% — a historic dip. GOP strategist Karl Rove had some blunt advice as the group debated how to claw its way back to political relevance.
“My message is this: Get off your ass,” Rove told nearly 500 delegates and guests at a sold-out convention luncheon in a hotel ballroom Saturday. “Get back in the game and fight.”
Rove was among several speakers who said a key to a comeback in California was recruiting candidates for office who are representative of their communities.
Latinos, who have been skeptical of the GOP over immigration policy for two decades, will overtake whites in California’s population next year. Though the party has long spoken of “outreach” to Latino voters, its efforts have been fruitless at the ballot box.
Ruben Barrales, president of the candidate recruitment organization GROW Elect, told delegates the party needs a new approach.
“We need to provide Latino voters Republican candidates who are from their neighborhood, and we need to build a farm team, a bench of Republican elected officials who can win in an increasingly diverse California,” he said.
“I, like many of you, have been frustrated by years of Hispanic outreach efforts by the party. I’m done with outreach efforts,” he continued. “I was looking for another kind of model, one that’s worked, one that was based on inclusion, not outreach.”
His group’s efforts resulted in the election of 30 Republican Latino candidates, he said. Several were toasted Friday at a cocktail party with mariachis, taquitos and margaritas.
Otherwise, the convention largely focused on the depths of the GOP’s losses in last November’s election.
“It’s easier to chart a path for the Dodgers to the World Series than a Republican Party comeback in California,” said Jon Fleischman, an influential Republican blogger, adding that the expected election of Jim Brulte as chairman was a good sign because Brulte has the skills to bring people together.
House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy grasped for a positive spin at the Sacramento Press Club on Friday.
“The most important thing the Republican Party has is: I don’t believe we can get any lower, alright, so the only way is up,” he said.
McCarthy offered a variation on years-old Republican hopes: that Democrats, who won a historic supermajority in the Legislature in November and hold every statewide office, would fail to fix the state’s problems. “A year and a half from now is a perfect opportunity for the Republicans,” he said. “We don’t own any of this mess.”
The task of rebuilding the party so it is ready to seize electoral opportunities will lie with Brulte, a former legislative leader. He said Saturday that some members had grown lazy.
“We spend too much time talking to the choir,” he said, “and not enough going into each and every community and delivering our message.”
Brulte is expected to take a less public role than the two most recent chairmen, instead focusing on fundraising and recruiting candidates. But the convention provided fresh evidence of persistent and serious problems that remain between the party’s moderate and conservative factions and the controversies that often turn off moderate voters.
A battle over Harmeet Dhillon, a San Francisco attorney who is the front-runner in the race for vice chairman, exemplifies both.
Dhillon is a Sikh whose family emigrated from India when she was a girl. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that one delegate, in a posting on Facebook, accused her of sympathizing with Muslim terrorists. Some delegates, according to Dhillon and others, have said they could not vote for her because she is “un-American” and sniffed that she might sacrifice a goat at the convention.
Fliers scattered throughout the convention meeting spot said: “Harmeet Dhillon, Republican token candidate, is not worthy of being trusted as she repeatedly tries to undermine and tarnish integrity of U.S. born patriotic Republicans.”
Party leaders have unequivocally condemned such attacks, and Dhillon dismisses them as the handiwork of a “handful of crazy people and bigots.”
Another hurdle Dhillon faces is that some conservative activists are campaigning against her for being too liberal because she once worked with the ACLU and gave campaign money to Kamala Harris, who is California’s attorney general.
Dhillon, who was raised in rural North Carolina and has been a Republican since she registered to vote, said she donated to Harris in a San Francisco district attorney race because she was the more conservative of the candidates. In the 2010 state attorney general race, which Harris won, Dhillon worked for a Harris opponent, Republican Steve Cooley, who has endorsed her for the party vice-chair position.
Dhillon said she became active in the ACLU after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. “I joined the board for a specific reason — people [who looked] like my brother and father were being shot, were being detained,” Dhillon said.
Authorities “were rounding up South Asians, rounding up Muslims, people were questioning Sikhs because they didn’t know the difference between who’s a terrorist and who’s just brown-skinned from that part of the world,” she said.
Rep. Darrell Issa, speaking at the convention luncheon Saturday, said the party’s unequivocal denunciations of the slurs against Dhillon were a sign of its egalitarian principles.
“I’m proud of you,” he said, “and I’m proud of our party.”
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