One after another of the speakers at last weekend’s California Republican Party convention did an admirable job of staying on Chairman Jim Brulte’s message: “Rebuild. Renew. Reclaim.” But there was remarkably little, if any, discussion of what about the GOP’s message and program has put them in a spot where rebooting is the only option.
Brulte, the former legislative leader who has refocused the party’s aim at local, non-partisan elections and potentially winnable legislative races, repeated his mantra that Republicans cannot continue to preach only to the choir, that winning 100% of the party’s 29% of voters will never get them to a 51% victory, and that the GOP must carry its message to diverse communities that are “outside of our comfort zone.”
In a neighborhood election, he is fond of saying, the candidate will win who looks and sounds like the voters and who shares their values and experience. With the right candidate, the right message, with enough money and a strong ground organization, Republicans can win elections, he preaches.
Brulte recognizes he is a party chairman, not an ideological or policy leader, let alone a media star. He’s a nuts and bolts guy. Which is surely needed in the wake of former self-promoting GOP Chairmen Tom Del Beccaro and Ron Nehring. His strategic approach is to avoid the limelight himself and use the state GOP to help win local non-partisan elections and build from the ground up toward regional and eventually statewide partisan races.
What Party? Republican Kevin Faulconer’s recent victory in the San Diego mayor’s race was Exhibit A for Brulte and his allies touting GOP success. Amid an endless number of receptions and rallies that portrayed his victory to the party faithful as a partisan win, no one seemed too eager to mention the fact that this was a non-partisan election. Faulconer didn’t run as a Republican; he ran on “restoring trust and integrity to the mayor’s office, and increasing financial stability, transparency and accountability at City Hall,” in the wake of disgraced Mayor Bob Filner’s scandalous tenure.
The test for Faulconer, and for Brulte’s ground-up strategy, will come if and when Faulconer seeks partisan office in something other than a safe Republican district.
Meanwhile, Brulte’s strategy of choosing to throw party resources into only those races where victory seems plausible is not a game plan with which all Republicans agree: “A major political party should have a candidate on the ballot in every general election,” argues conservative stalwart and blogger Jon Fleischman. “The Republican Party loses when it doesn’t have a standard-bearer on the ballot.”
Even more broadly, Brulte’s approach leaves a gaping hole in strategy for the CRP.
It’s the Message, Stupid. Their problem is not a “failure to communicate.” It’s the content of what’s being communicated: the GOP’s overarching commitment – as an organization – against abortion rights and gay marriage, against containing global warming, against the interests of labor and the working poor, against universal health care and gun control and against a path to citizenship for undocumented workers.
Unfortunately for the GOP, that’s still their brand, and California voters aren’t buying. Polls and elections demonstrate that working people, environmentally attuned voters, women, Latinos, Asians and blacks, young people, and moderate and independent voters in general don’t share these values. That’s why the party finds itself in a position where it must rebuild and renew in order to reclaim its position as a major force in California politics.
The slogan is good but the fix is inadequate.
“This is a party that, whether we like it or not, has been in decline for over two decades in this state,” Brulte told reporters at a small gaggle in his 9th floor suite at the Burlingame Hyatt Regency on Friday as the GOP convention was set to open.
And what happened two decades ago that set the California GOP into its tailspin? Proposition 187, the anti-illegal immigrant initiative which Republican Gov. Pete Wilson used as a weapon to win re-election but which drove an as-yet unrepaired wedge between the party and Latinos. Wilson’s “They Keep Coming” ad lives in infamy.
It’s a problem that plagues the California GOP to this day, despite energetic and enthusiastic efforts, including by San Diego’s Ruben Barrales and his “Grow Elect” operation, to find, recruit, train and elect Latino Republicans as part of the party’s rebuilding effort.
Still Beating a Bad Drum. The California Republican Party – although not all of its elected officials – remains steadfastly opposed to providing a pathway to legality or citizenship for undocumented immigrants and vehemently opposed as well to providing scholarships to public universities for children of illegal immigrants.
One of its leading candidates for governor, for example, is Assemblyman Tim “Shooter” Donnelly of San Bernardino, who has participated in “Minuteman” patrols on the Mexican border and whose web site says:
As our border remains ever more porous, the costs of illegal immigration continue to mount. The legislature cuts our education and law enforcement budgets yet passes horrific entitlements costing us billions! . . . I spent my vacation leading the campaign to overturn the California DREAM Act, the bill that would give those illegal immigrants free taxpayer funded college tuition money. In my first year in office, I introduced legislation to bring SB 1070, the Arizona Law, to California and stop sanctuary cities –jurisdictions that refuse to enforce immigration laws.
The other leading GOP candidate for governor, by the way, Neel Kashkari, does support a pathway to legal status for unauthorized immigrants, although he’s open to discussion on whether that would mean citizenship or some-form of green-card legality. Should Kash (and not Shooter) win a chance to run against Gov. Brown in November, he could make strides toward repairing the GOP brand among Latinos.
Perhaps because of the rise of libertarian Republicans like Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul – whose stands on social issues are more attuned to the sensibilities of younger voters – the California Republican Party seemed to be drawing more young activists to its convention than recent confabs have seen.
How quickly – and whether – they can alter the party’s hard-line stances on social issues that conflict with the broad spectrum of California voters – on choice, gay marriage, immigration, the environment, etc. – remains to be seen. There was no indication last weekend that Brulte and the party poobahs are prepared, yet, to take on the blue-haired ladies and white-belted geezers who have dominated GOP conventions for eons.
Bottom Line. Until they do, the Grand Old Party will teeter on irrelevance in California.