California Republicans named a new chair Sunday, electing Jessica Patterson, a Latina, the first woman to lead the state party after it suffered historic losses in the November midterm elections.
Patterson defeated former Huntington Beach Assemblyman Travis Allen and longtime GOP activist Steve Frank for the post, winning 55% of the vote after a contentious campaignthat exposed deep rifts in the party’s base.
“Today, we are starting the next chapter in our party’s history,” Patterson told convention attendees Sunday morning in Sacramento. “No egos, no personal agendas, no drama. We’re going to be about one thing: winning.”
Delegates who voted for Patterson said she was a fresh face who could help broaden the party’s reach and steer it back toward relevance. The 38-year-old mother of two is a longtime political operative and the chief executive of California Trailblazers, a group that trains Republican legislative candidates. She will lead a team of newly elected executive officers that includes Vice-Chairman Peter Kuo, a Taiwanese American immigrant, and Treasurer Gregory Gandrud, who is gay.
“We’ve been a party that’s essentially got a face that is primarily white and male and old,” said Cassandra Pye, a consultant who worked in the administration of former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and voted as a delegate this weekend for the first time in more than a decade. “It’s time we turn the party over to another generation and to some folks that look more like the rest of California.”
Patterson has been praised by supporters as a pragmatist with long-standing relationships with major donors. It’s those connections, some delegates said, that are needed to shore up finances as the California GOP redefines itself in a time of crisis.
Republicans hold just seven of California’s 53 congressional seats and represent less than a quarter of the seats in both houses of the state Legislature. Fewer than 1 in 4 California voters are registered with the GOP.
“The California Republican Party is in desperate shape,” said former San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio, who supported Patterson and held a Saturday news conference where he said that Allen’s election would be the “final nails in the coffin” of the party.
Without Patterson’s leadership, DeMaio said, the party would collapse and be relegated to a regional organization. A number of other Republican consultants and operatives had quietly raised concerns that Allen’s brash style and his criticism of the party’s biggest donors would lead the party to financial and organizational ruin.
“At some point, you reach the point of no return, where a party is so tarnished, has so atrophied, that it’s difficult to reanimate the party,” he said. ”We’re not there yet.”
On the campaign trail, Patterson called for inclusivity, saying it was necessary to start racking up wins again.
“There are too few of us for us to try and push people out in one direction or the other,” Patterson said Saturday, adding that every person who identified as Republican should feel welcome in the party.
“I know who the enemy is. They’re 500 yards away in that white building,” she said, pointing toward the state Capitol across the street, where Democrats hold supermajorities in both houses of the Legislature.
Allen and Frank, both favorites among grassroots activists, had argued that taking a hard turn right and returning to “conservative values” was the only way to inspire Republicans again. They urged doubling down on support for Trump, pushed unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud in the state and attacked Patterson as part of the “failing status quo” that led the party to its worst losses in years.
Co-opting a popular slogan of the left, the pair distributed black and white stickers that read “Resist,” prompting Patterson supporters to don stickers that read “Unite” and “Win.”
Speakers at the convention included former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson and Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, who declared that the United States would never be a socialist state and took digs at New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Green New Deal.
Others were warmly received with discussions of what Republicans believed to be the failings of state Democrats’ “one-party rule”: homelessness, taxes driving residents and businesses away and runaway housing costs.
On Saturday, Allen supporters gathered on the steps of the state Capitol and danced to music with lyrics supportive of Trump’s signature initiative: “Build the wall, 10 feet, 20 feet, 100 feet tall.” Among them was a handful of men wearing clothes identifying themselves as members of the Proud Boys, a far-right organization.
Later that night, several dozen tea party members packed into a Claim Jumper restaurant downtown, dining on shrimp and tri-tip as they listened to a former U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agent speak at a “Build the Wall”-themed dinner. At least one person was taken into custody by police after a confrontation between tea party guests and protesters outside.
Beth Miller, a consultant who has worked in Republican politics for three decades, said it was a “nationalistic bent” that kept her away from party conventions in recent years. She decided to become a party delegate for the first time this year to vote for Patterson.
“I think there’s been a silent majority for a long time who’ve just stood by and said, ‘You know, it’ll right its course,’ ” said Miller, who added that she considered changing her voter registration to ”no party preference” if Allen was elected. “I’m at a point where it may be a point of no return, but I’m staking my ground and saying, ‘I want to go in a new direction.’ ”
Pye, who showed up to the convention wearing a black sweatshirt emblazoned with “Roosevelt & Ruth & Rosa & Truth” — for Eleanor Roosevelt, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Rosa Parks and Sojourner Truth — told a group of friends she was there to “take back my party.”
“This is less about defining to the 1,500 or so delegates at this convention who we are. Talk all you want about how ‘Republican lite’ I am. … That’s internal, it doesn’t matter,” Pye said. “This is about defining to Californians who we are. That’s why I’m here again.”
Morgan Murtaugh, who ran last year for Congress in San Diego and was a first-time delegate, said she was glad to have a voice like Patterson’s in the mix.
“There are Republicans like myself … who felt kind of like the party left us, abandoned us, when they took up the Trump fight,” said Murtaugh, 26, who said she came to vote because she feared further losses if the party veered right.
As a former candidate, Murtaugh was able to appoint other delegates, including Amelia Carder, 26, who said Patterson represented a perspective that resonated with millennials.
“What they are talking about doesn’t necessarily correlate with what people like Travis [Allen] think people are upset about,” Carder said.
Not all were satisfied with the results.
Delegate Susan Walsh walked out of the convention hall wearing a Travis Allen sticker and a look of disgust.
“Who cares?” she said loudly as she left. “I’m done.”
She called the process “rigged” by voters allowed to cast their vote by proxy and said Allen was the only candidate who could inspire the grassroots enough to help Republicans win again in California.
“They don’t listen to the people. They listen to swamp-dwellers and the establishment,” said Walsh, who described herself as a former Democrat who switched parties after volunteering for President Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012. “I didn’t leave the Democrats to join Republican Lite.”
“We can only hope the Republican Party stands to fight again,” Allen said after the vote.
Another Allen supporter, Bay Area resident Catherine Hart, 54, said she was still processing what she considered a disappointing vote.
“My focus is going to be electing Donald Trump in 2020 and putting all my energy into that,” she said.
As for staying involved in a largely divided state party?