California Republicans to celebrate small wins, face large realities

California Republicans to celebrate small wins, face large realities
California delegate Gary Felien wears his special straw hat during a breakfast pep rally at last year's Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

The theme for this weekend’s California Republican Party convention could have been the theme for every California Republican convention going back years: Rebuilding From the Ground Up.

A brief recap of the party’s woes: Its share of the state’s registered voters has slumped below 30%. Democrats control all facets of Sacramento, from state offices to both houses of the Legislature. Most of its fundraising has gone to retiring a walloping debt.

Republicans in Washington might have been able to leverage their minority status into outsized power, but not so their California counterparts. Where else to go but up?

True, the convention will undoubtedly include the usual bits of lunacy that surface at any party's gathering. (At their most recent meeting last spring, some attendees expressed fear that Harmeet Dhillon, an immigrant from India then running for vice chair of the party, would sacrifice a goat at the convention. She won anyway.)


It also will, if state chairman Jim Brulte has his way, highlight the flickers of success that have come the party's way of late, even if they are just flickers.  In July, the party picked up a state Senate seat previously held by a Democrat, though that did not deny Democrats their two-thirds control of the Senate. The party now has a positive balance in its bank account, although it has $9 million or so less than state Democrats have to spend. A recent survey of local officeholders found that almost half of them are Republicans, though they appear to have benefited from an issue set that becomes problematic for Republicans as candidates move up the ladder.

There remain sobering realities: The sole Republican running to upend Gov. Jerry Brown next year had $45,000 in the bank at the last reporting period; Brown had $10 million. (And a substantial number at the convention this weekend can’t stand that particular Republican, former Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, due to a long-ago tax vote.) Right now, few expect there to be many tight contests for statewide office next year.

And then there is the federal government shutdown, which threatens to harden ideological divides — never a good thing for the distinctly minority party trying to craft a bigger, more inclusive image.

Brulte's stated goals implicitly acknowledge some of those realities. As ticked off in an interview, they are: maintaining the national congressional majority, limiting the Democratic supermajorities in the state Legislature, and expanding the "farm team" in lower level offices. (Not that he is against adding to those goals with things like winning a statewide office, he said. "Sometimes the wave comes and you have to have someone on the board to catch it.")

To extend the sports analogies, Brulte's effort now is not the stuff of flash, in which one slick and dramatic play gets Republicans back in the game. It is, rather, the equivalent of reclaiming yardage one grimy inch at a time.

"Republicans didn't get in trouble on one night last November," Brulte said. "The decline in Republican registration began a long time ago. We're not going to fix that in one election, or a two-year election cycle. But we have to fix it. It's not just because we want to elect more Republicans, though that is an enviable goal… Having a viable two-party system in California is important for California, not just for Republicans."

Efforts like his have always foundered  on the shoals of reality: How do you attract women, the largest bloc of voters in the state, if your party's views are perceived by many of them to be anti-woman? How do you attract Latinos and Asians, the fastest-growing blocs of voters in the state, if your party's views are perceived by many of them to be anti-immigrant?

"I'm going to leave the issues to people in elective office, and the candidates, and I'm going to focus on the nuts and bolts," said Brulte, a former state senator. "Not that I'm not capable of discussing issues. I just think I have one very, very small job in the entire Republican hierarchy, and my small job is to focus on rebuilding the Republican Party."

Twitter: @cathleendecker