Many Notable California Republicans Staying Away From GOP Convention

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to guest gathered at Fountain Park during a campaign rally on March 19, 2016, in Fountain Hills, Arizona. (Ralph Freso/Getty Images)

California is sending 341 delegates to the Republican National Convention this week in Cleveland. Among them is first-time delegate Juan Hernandez, who says he wants to do everything he can to get Republican nominee Donald Trump elected.

“It has been a whirlwind since the beginning of June, since I went to his rally," Hernandez says. "And I know not everybody is able to go to the RNC, and I know other people who wanted to go. So it’s a big thing.”

Hernandez isn’t your typical Trump supporter. He’s a gay Latino conservative living in the traditionally liberal Bay Area. But Harmeet Dhillon, vice chair of the California Republican Party, says Hernandez is part of the most diverse delegation at the convention.

“We have people who are first-generation immigrants like me and my husband," she says. "We have a number of other Indian-Americans, we have African-Americans, we have other types of Latinos, Asians. We have young, we have old, we have veterans, we have electeds.”

But what they don’t have is the majority of GOP elected officials.

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The delegation includes three members of the state Legislature, including Senate Republican leader Jean Fuller. Assembly Republican leader Chad Mayes is sitting it out. Of California’s 14 Republican congressional representatives, just six have confirmed to KQED they’ll be attending. Dhillon says there’s a practical reason other GOP officeholders aren’t making the trip -- they’re busy running for re-election.

“To the extent that many of our Republican elected legislators are competing for their seats, I certainly think it would be electoral malpractice for them to spend a week in Cleveland when they should spend a week campaigning in their districts," Dhillon says. "So I don’t blame anybody for staying home.”

California Republican Party Vice Chair Harmeet Dhillon.
California Republican Party Vice Chair Harmeet Dhillon. (Jeremy Raff/KQED)

But Claremont McKenna College government professor Jack Pitney says it’s odd that more lawmakers aren’t attending the convention, where they could make valuable campaign contacts.

“Usually this is an amazing networking opportunity for politicians," he says.

California’s 2012 delegation brought some big names along with it. Former Gov. Pete Wilson and former gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman were among them. Neither of them will be in Cleveland. The main reason for the high absenteeism, says Pitney, is Trump.

“You don’t want to be present at a convention where there could be disorder," Pitney says, "where the candidate is going to say something outrageous, where an opponent might try to link you with an increasingly unpopular figure.”

Republican political consultant Rob Stutzman is among those staying home. He helped coordinate the Never Trump movement in California when it appeared the state’s primary might have been crucial to choosing the nominee.

“I think it’s almost unprecedented that you’ve had such an overwhelming response of Republicans, activists and elected Republicans to want to stay away from their national convention," Stutzman says. "I mean it’s usually a phenomenally positive environment.”

Delegate and former state party chair Shawn Steel calls Trump’s nomination mind-boggling, but says the convention will still have a celebratory feel.

“I think you’re going to have at least half the delegates who are going have never been to a convention in their life," Steel says. "In the past, 80 to 90 percent of delegates have been to a convention before. There’s a new era, new people and new blood.”

Steel thinks the convention will be aimed at the general public who will be tuning in, rather than party insiders. Beyond that, he says it will be unpredictable, just like the candidate himself.