As Republicans nationwide reconsider the party's direction, nowhere is their challenge more daunting than in California.
The state that produced Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon and the "Orange County conservative" has banished the GOP to the margins, with the party now accounting for less than 30 percent of all registered voters.
The decades-long slide became painfully apparent following last fall's election, when Republicans lost four congressional seats and Democrats captured supermajorities in both houses of the California Legislature. Latinos, Asians, women and younger voters who make up the bulk of the state's electorate all turned away from a party that is seen as driven by conservatives who are out of touch with their views.
In an attempt to restore their party to relevance, Republican delegates are expected to elect as their new chairman this weekend a former state lawmaker who is widely seen as a pragmatist and a political moderate.
But it's far from clear whether the former state senator, Jim Brulte, or anyone else can turn around the party's political fortunes. Even the party's official platform seems a better fit for socially conservative Arkansas than California. It pledges opposition to gay marriage, "alternative" lifestyles, abortion and universal health care, while supporting efforts to declare English as the official language of business.
Brulte and other Republicans want to focus on what they call the GOP's core values, which they say align closely with those of the state's growing ethnic populations.
"I think the Republican principles that are smaller government, less taxes, greater parental control and more local control — I think those are principles that the overwhelming majority of people in California support," said Brulte. "They will tell you that the party has to do a much better job showing its heart."
But the theory that Republicans can connect with Latinos and other groups on social issues and limited government may no longer be borne out in California's demographics. While older Hispanic and Asian voters tend to be more conservative on social issues, those younger than 40 largely say they support gay marriage and legalizing marijuana, said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll.
"When you talk about these hot-button social issues that are percolating to the top of the agenda, the younger Latinos and younger Asians are more likely to be in sync with the white population" of young voters who are more liberal, DiCamillo said. "That's a long-term problem for the Republicans."
Public opinions polls on a wide range of political and social questions also show that California's growing number of independent voters more closely align with Democrats than with Republicans.
To make matters worse for the state GOP, 9 of out 10 voters who have registered to vote in California during the last 20 years have been Latino or Asian, and Latinos are poised to overtake whites as the dominant ethnic group in the state early next year.
Those new voters are choosing not to align themselves with either of the two dominant political parties, but have voted overwhelmingly Democratic in the last several elections, including approving Gov. Jerry Brown's sales and income tax increases last November.
California Republicans have talked for years about creating outreach programs for Latinos, but each attempt has come up short, including the millions of dollars 2010 GOP gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman poured into what was described at the time as an unprecedented effort.
Brulte said the party's fortunes cannot be reversed overnight. For now, he promises only a steady climb out of the party's financial hole, which he said is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
He said he will focus on the mechanics of rebuilding the party's infrastructure rather than its image.
"When you have Republican governors for 23 of 30 years, you know, the party gets used to having large contributions, which amazingly dried up once we no longer had a governor. The party had become overly reliant on those large contributions" and allowed its other donor programs to atrophy, Brulte said. "So the first step is rebuilding a strong finance base and getting the party out of debt and then banking money for the 2014 election cycle. That's No. 1."
Brulte said he expects the party to have a nominee for next year's governor's race, in which Brown is expected to seek re-election.
The only GOP candidate who has publicly discussed running is a former border patrol Minuteman-turned-state assemblyman who pleaded no contest last year to carrying a loaded handgun in his briefcase when he tried to board a flight to Sacramento.
Turning the state party around is important to Republicans nationally, as well. California has the nation's largest share of electoral votes, at 55, but has not voted for a Republican nominee for president since George H.W. Bush in 1988. GOP registration hit a modern-day peak of nearly 40 percent in 1992 before the current slide. If the party brass can turn things around in a state that is now predominantly blue, it could serve as a model for other Republican aspirations.
Yet it's not clear how deep the desire for change runs among the party's faithful in California. Nearly all the GOP lawmakers have signed the national "no taxes" pledge from conservative activist Grover Norquist, and many Republicans blame a large part of their party's woes on Democrats' longstanding affiliation with deep-pocketed labor unions.
In an op-ed announcing her 2014 candidacy for the California Board of Equalization, a tax authority, Republican state Assemblywoman Diane Harkey of Dana Point said "flexibility in policy and values" were the downfall of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican who alienated many in his party with his moderate views.
"Conventional wisdom says Republicans must change who we are and what we stand for if we want to reach the young, minorities and women that broke decisively for Democrats. Compromise on social issues, immigration and even taxation seem to be the prescription," Harkey wrote. "But to win elections again we must 'expand' who we are, and not lose sight of what we stand for."
This weekend's convention, which was organized by the party's outgoing chairman, may not be the best showcase for a fresh, new California Republican Party. It features a roster of conservative white men bearing the party's traditional messages.
GOP strategist and political action committee organizer Karl Rove is the featured speaker Saturday, the convention's main day. He will promote his new effort to broaden the party's reach with minorities.
Ben Shapiro, editor-at-large of the conservative Breitbart.com, is scheduled to offer "his perspective on the bully mentality of the left," according to the party's website.
"I guess that just reinforces what needs to be done," said Ruben Barrales, a former White House staffer for George W. Bush who was hired this month to lead GROW Elect, a grassroots effort that was started to build a base of Republican Latinos by getting them elected to local offices statewide.
The group supported 30 winning candidates in 2012.
He said the group wants to grow a solid farm team, working outside the party structure and relying partly on funding from frustrated donors.
"I'm at a point where I either can keep complaining about it, or I can do something about it," said Barrales, who ran unsuccessfully for state controller in 1998. "What we want to see is a Republican Party that's more representative overall of the demographics."
- Politics & Government
- Jim Brulte