Analysis:: State GOP worries Donald Trump’s trash talk could hurt its image

Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump speaks in Arkansas on Friday. Trump's recent criticisms of immigrants from Mexico don't sit well with California Republicans, who've worked hard to make the party diverse and inclusive.

Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump speaks in Arkansas on Friday. Trump’s recent criticisms of immigrants from Mexico don’t sit well with California Republicans, who’ve worked hard to make the party diverse and inclusive.

(Danny Johnston / Associated Press)

As he intended, Donald Trump has hit a nerve.

“We’ve got 15-16 very serious people running for president — and one clown,” fumed Shawn Steel, California’s representative to the Republican National Committee, the GOP’s organizing body. “Trump is a pig, and he’s coming in upsetting every cart he can find, throwing dishes off the table.”

“Intolerable and inexcusable,” declared the state Assembly Republican leader, Kristin Olsen of Modesto. “Somebody who has never been active in the party and is looking for his 15 minutes of fame.”

The derision sounds personal because it is.

For years California Republicans have tried to change their party’s image, to invite everyone into the pool — especially Latinos, whose enmity arose after a 1994 GOP effort to block immigrants without proper papers from state services. And now, the architecturally coiffed, anger-venting Trump has cannonballed in, disrupting the presidential race with factually incorrect and caustic criticisms of immigrants from Mexico.


This is the same Donald Trump who during the last campaign promoted race-inflected allegations about the birthplace of the nation’s first black president. He is a man with a penchant for brazen statements, so there is some hope among Republicans that the damage will be limited to Trump himself.

But the party’s negative national image has long thwarted the state party’s efforts to reboot its image, particularly among women and Latinos who are key to winning here. And Trump right now appears to be an undeniable threat to perpetuate that problem. So many Republicans are running for president that even a showman with support from less than 1 in 5 voters is running strongly enough to win an almost certain role in debates that begin next month and stretch through the fall. Having attracted so much attention already, why would he stop?

For California Republicans, an extended season of Trump would be close to the party’s worst nightmare.

“Yep, pretty much,” Olsen said.

It was in his announcement speech in June that Trump asserted that the United States had become “a dumping ground” for other countries’ problems. Immigrants from Mexico, he said, were “bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

Olsen and Assembly Republicans quickly denounced Trump’s remarks. The party’s leader in the state Senate, Bob Huff, criticized him too. Some leaders encouraged the state party to come down on Trump, but it has not.

The state Republican chief, former legislator Jim Brulte, who has worked to broaden the party’s reach, has declined to critique any candidate and said voters would make their judgment in June’s primary. The national party also declined to criticize Trump’s immigration comments, though it released a statement Saturday upbraiding him for mocking Arizona Sen. John McCain’s war record.


The irresistible irony here, for chortling Democrats at least, is that an anti-Latino pitch is precisely what the national party warned candidates against after the last presidential campaign. “Many minorities wrongly think that Republicans do not like them or want them in the country,” said a report commissioned by the RNC. “When someone rolls their eyes at us, they are not likely to open their ears to us.”

It was notable, then, that this year’s crop of candidates only slowly came to denounce Trump’s immigration comments; they remain caught between not wanting to offend voters attracted to Trump’s anti-establishment screeds yet wanting to appeal to rising voter groups.

Hints of damage surfaced in a Univision poll of Latino voters conducted last month. It found a slight uptick in the percentage with an unfavorable image of the Republican Party after Trump’s comments, compared with beforehand.

California, of course, provides a searing lesson in what happens to a political party confounded by issues resting on demographic changes. As the numbers of Latino and Asian voters have risen, the GOP’s ability to win statewide races has vanished.

Still, the party is not what it was in 1994, when Proposition 187 succeeded at the polls — it was later largely tossed by the courts — only to define Republicans harshly.

Now, almost 30% of Assembly Republicans are women — a higher percentage than among Democrats. Five of the 28 caucus members are minorities. Seventeen are both white and male, a description that used to apply to the entire caucus.


The party is “embracing the changing demography of the state—which is why the Trump situation is just absolutely irritating,” said Ling Ling Chang, a GOP Assembly member from Diamond Bar who emigrated from Taiwan.

“The California Republican Party is not the same as the national Republican Party,” said freshman Assemblyman Chad Mayes of Yucca Valley, who blamed cable news for merging the two. “When you have that diversity and interacting with folks, it does begin to shape your mind in a different way. I think that’s good.”

Republicans here have gained seats at the local and regional level, where many races are nonpartisan. They falter statewide under the GOP’s taint, which is why appeals like Trump’s pose such a threat.

Steel, the RNC committeeman, pointed with pride to efforts to broaden the party. (He is married to Michelle Park Steel, a member of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, who is Korean American). He dismissed Trump as a “P.T. Barnum of the modern age” who will burn out well before the election.

“This is very early in the game, in a slow-news summer,” Steel said.

His fellow Republicans hope he’s right.

Twitter: @cathleendecker. For more on politics, go to