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Republicans at state party gathering would rather talk about the gas tax than keeping the House

A candidate stands on the "soapbox," a platform that not many House hopefuls took advantage of at the convention.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

These California Republicans mostly just didn’t want to talk about it.

At their state party convention in San Diego over the weekend, the GOP activists talked about who to endorse in the governor’s race. They talked about blaming Democrats for a whole host of ills, including income inequality and increased crime. They talked about the need to condemn a neo-Nazi candidate for U.S. Senate who showed up unannounced and was escorted away by security guards.

But they didn’t talk a lot about the biggest threat at their doorstep: The possibility that Democrats might retake control of the House by beating their own in long-held Republican seats.

Scott Baugh, who’s running against vulnerable incumbent Republican Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa), was one of the only GOP congressional candidates whose name was spotted along corridors plastered with posters. Neither of them attended, nor did Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield). He could, depending on Republicans’ fortunes this November, be the next House speaker.

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A soapbox set up in the hall as part of the party’s “candidate fair” saw few visits from House hopefuls, in part because the gathering’s timing just weeks before the June 5 primary meant many candidates and activists involved in competitive races probably stayed home to campaign.

Instead, the gathered activists and politicians seemed to try to focus on the issues they hope will keep the party faithful excited through the November general election.

In a meeting room equipped with more than a dozen phones, convention-goers were encouraged to make calls to voters about the Republican effort to recall a Democratic state senator who helped pass the new gas tax hike — one of the things Republicans are counting on to inspire conservatives to come out to vote, and keep congressional seats in GOP hands.

“The only thing that matters for California Republicans this year are a half-dozen House races,” said Dan Schnur, a former Republican and political communications professor at USC. “Everything else is either designed to support those House candidates or it’s just for show.”

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Rep Mimi Walters speaks at the California Republican convention.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times )

Vulnerable Rep. Mimi Walters (R-Irvine), one of the only officials to explicitly acknowledge the fight, did so from the prominent perch as a dinner headliner.

She warned.

“The Democrats think there’s no stopping them this time,” Walters told a crowd of activists gathered to honor Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) and Ed Royce (R-Fullerton), part of the flood of GOP retirements this year. “They’re not just coming for any one of us, they’re coming for all of us.”

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She counseled.

“We may not win every difficult race,” and there will be moments when “doubt declares its hold on you.”

Still, getting back to the cheerleading that typically marks these gatherings, she said she’s ready for the fight.

“Who’s with me?” she forcefully asked the crowd.

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The response was more golf clap than rallying cry.

“You see an energy and an enthusiasm on the left that I have not seen as a 22-year elected official,” Walters told reporters afterward, matter-of-factly describing “unprecedented protests” at her office following President Trump’s election.

It’s something that has also concerned Diane McGlinchey, a delegate who sits on the Orange County Republican Party’s central committee, for months. “At first, when the Democrats started out … they had great force. I looked around and thought, ‘How’s this going to turn out?’”

Then, says McGlinchey, two movements to counter Democrats that she called a “godsend” came just in time: the effort to repeal the gas tax increase via a ballot measure in November, which congressional Republicans helped fund, and a wave of local opposition to the “sanctuary state” law.

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“The Democrats have given us two beautiful issues to run on,” said Tony Krvaric, chairman of the San Diego County party, as hotel wait staff cleaned up an empty banquet hall.

Candidate for governor John Cox fell back on those issues as he inserted a bit of bravado while stumping for endorsement votes early Saturday in front of a sparsely populated meeting room.

“We not only want to hold the 14 [House] seats we have, we want to win some more seats!” Cox told the crowd, sandwiched between the California and American flags. That’s why, he argued, Republicans need to unite behind one candidate for governor. A few people clapped. But when he said, “We are going to get rid of the sanctuary state!” he was met with a loud “Yeah!”

In a strategy session over the gas tax, radio host and former San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio stood at a lectern above a large red “STOP THE CAR TAX” sign and called it the “best issue you could run on in November.”

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Next door, speakers addressed a standing-room-only crowd incensed about the sanctuary state law, which limits local law enforcement in many cases from coordinating with federal immigration officials when someone who might be deported is in custody.

While the issue is not likely to be on the November ballot, controversy over the sanctuary policy has prompted a string of Southern California counties and cities to oppose the law in various ways. It is, national party committeeman and Orange County Republican Shawn Steel said, an “ongoing prairie fire that won’t go out.”

Still, “My worry is this: enthusiasm,” Steel told The Times. “Are the Democrats hungrier than we are? That’s the number one concern.”

Coverage of California politics »

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christine.maiduc@latimes.com

For more on California politics, follow @cmaiduc.


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