The California Republican Party’s decision to invite right-wing provocateur and former presidential advisor Stephen K. Bannon to address its convention Friday created an unsettled concoction of excitement, dread and rubbernecking curiosity for GOP loyalists in the state.
The keynote speech in Anaheim is scheduled less than a week after Bannon, who runs the far-right website Breitbart News, called for “a season of war” on the GOP establishment. The threat was aimed squarely at Republicans in Washington whom Bannon considers disloyal to President Trump and the conservative agenda.
Bannon will appear before a California GOP desperate to reverse its deteriorating influence in a state where it has been losing members and where Republican victories in statewide political races have been nonexistent for a decade. His admirers hope his speech will invigorate the GOP base and lure Trump supporters outside of the party into its fold. But Republican critics worry he’ll undercut efforts to rekindle the party in a state where Trump and his policies remain widely unpopular.
Bannon tops a list of mostly Trump-aligned speakers set to address the convention, including Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton and Fox News’ Jeanine Pirro. State Republican Party Chairman Jim Brulte said he isn’t worried about the stir Bannon might create among Republicans who have a distaste for him or the president.
“If two people agree on absolutely everything, there’s no earthly need for one of them,” he said.
Brulte and other state party leaders said Bannon’s invitation was an easy call — he was Trump’s top political strategist until August. His appearance will also attract television news cameras and pump life into what was expected to be a sleepy, three-day GOP convention.
But others in the party don’t see it that way. Former Assembly Republican Leader Chad Mayes of Yucca Valley unleashed a series of rapid-fire tweets to blast the decision last week.
“It’s a huge step backward and demonstrates that the Party remains tone deaf and intellectually dishonest with the vast majority of Californians,” tweeted Mayes, who recently resigned his leadership post amid criticism and controversy. “As in life, you can’t have it both ways and today’s announcement made clear the direction the party wants to go.”
Republican political consultant Kevin Eckery of Sacramento, who served as former Gov. Pete Wilson’s press secretary, called Bannon a “fear-monger” who undercuts a party searching for political relevance in a state dominated by Democrats.
“I think it contributes to the destruction of the California GOP. Bannon is not just divisive, but is literally intent on destroying the party in hopes that he can rebuild something in his image,” Eckery said. “And his image is not something we need to convey in California.”
Other California GOP strategists noted that Democrat Hillary Clinton beat Trump in the state by more than 4.2 million votes in November. Their party can only grow if it becomes more inclusive, they said.
Republican National Committeewoman Harmeet Dhillon dismissed those concerns about Bannon and said critics would be wise to consider his audience.
“We’re talking about the party faithful, and I can tell you he’s very popular among those people,” Dhillon said.
Dhillon also brushed aside the criticism from Mayes, who resigned as Republican Assembly leader under pressure after joining Democrats to support an extension of the state’s cap-and-trade program, which requires companies to pay for permits to pollute.
“Chad is, frankly, irrelevant,” she said.
Dhillon defended Bannon’s efforts to target establishment Republicans in Washington who have failed to deliver on their campaign promises — namely repealing Obamacare, passing substantial tax reform and cracking down on immigrants entering the country illegally.
Bannon received substantial credit for Trump’s upset win in November and, as his chief advisor, helped orchestrate many of the the Republican president’s early policies, including his orders against immigrants and refugees.
But throughout Bannon’s time in Washington, Democrats and other Trump adversaries have criticized him as a racially divisive figure who is sympathetic to white nationalists and helped stoke Trump’s nationalistic tendencies.
When Bannon arrives in Anaheim on Friday, he’s expected to be greeted by a protest organized by Southern California chapters of Indivisible. An Anaheim Police Department official said the agency is aware of possible demonstrations but declined to provide details on how it is preparing for the protest. The state Republican Party is also ramping up security at the convention in anticipation of protests.
Since being forced out of the Trump White House in August, Bannon returned to Breitbart and has launched a political crusade against Republicans he believes are impeding the Trump agenda. At a gathering of conservative activists in Washington on Saturday, Bannon ripped into Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), one of Trump’s harshest critics in the GOP.
“There’s a time and season for everything, and right now it’s a season of war against a GOP establishment,” Bannon said at the event.
Celeste H. Greig, former president of the California Republican Assembly, a conservative group once deemed the “conscience” of the state GOP by Ronald Reagan, said she couldn’t be happier with Bannon’s push to clean up the GOP. Most of the Republicans criticizing Bannon are those who belonged to the band of “never Trump” party members, people who opposed Trump’s presidential campaign from the get-go, she said.
“What Steve Bannon is saying makes sense. You are either with me or you are not,” Greig said.
The top two Republicans running for California governor, who will be making appeals to GOP delegates at this weekend’s convention, provided slightly different takes on Bannon’s appearance. Assemblyman Travis Allen of Huntington Beach praised Bannon for “taking on the elites” in the Republican Party. Rancho Santa Fe businessman John Cox offered a more measured response.
“Agree with him or not, he helped elect a president that the establishment and media thought couldn’t possibly win,” Cox said in a statement.
Bannon’s style is in stark contrast to one of the other top speakers at the California Republican Party’s convention this weekend, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield). An affable political insider, McCarthy appeared to be a lock to become the next speaker of the House in 2015, but he withdrew from consideration after he was undercut by the House’s conservative Freedom Caucus.
Still, McCarthy is widely admired in the state party.
“Kevin McCarthy represents more of the California Republican Party than a lot of other people do, including Steve Bannon,” said Mario Guerra, treasurer of the state Republican Party. “I firmly believe in what Ronald Reagan said: ‘Thou shall not speak badly of other Republicans.’ ”
Times staff writer Seema Mehta contributed to this report.