Donald Trump did not appear at the California Republican Party convention, but many there took photos with a cardboard version of him. (Scott Shafer/KQED)
SACRAMENTO -- As he sat on the edge of the ballroom stage at the Sacramento Hyatt Hotel Saturday afternoon, California Republican Party Chairman Jim Brulte seemed to have not a care in the world.
"I’m actually excited about our prospects," Brulte said. "We’ve spent a lot of money trying to figure out if there is a path forward. We believe there is. We believe we can elect a Republican governor in 2018."
Brulte, a wily former state senator from Rancho Cucamonga, has brought an aura of stability and purpose to the state GOP since becoming chairman in 2013. He was overwhelmingly re-elected chair at this weekend's convention.
Still, he's presiding over a ship that, at best, is taking on water: unable to hold onto the bare minimum of seats needed to prevent Democrats from having two-thirds majorities in both the Assembly and Senate, not a single statewide officeholder and a share of registered voters that now stands at 26 percent, slightly more than the percentage of "no party preference" or nonpartisan voters.
"I’ve always said one, two, three election cycles isn’t going to repair that," Brulte acknowledged. "It is a long-term slog."
Brulte insists they'll have "one or two" strong candidates for governor next year, a year he predicts will see well-funded Democrats attack each other while leaving an opening for a Republican.
But which Republican? The dream candidate seems to be San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, a Republican elected and easily re-elected with votes from across the political spectrum in a Democrat-majority city. Faulconer is mild-mannered, likable, campaigns before Latino voters in Spanish and has moderate views that could appeal to voters statewide. But so far, he says he's not interested.
This was the first California GOP convention since the raucous gathering last April that saw "Stop Trump" forces inside the party waging a last stand to stave off the real estate tycoon's nomination.
The party officials, officeholders, worker bees and grass-roots activists gathered in Sacramento this weekend ranged from excited to resigned to having Trump as the face of the party.
Randall Jordan, Tea Party California Caucus chair, said "every day is Christmas" with Trump in the White House. Jordan is excited by what he sees as the president following through with campaign promises on issues like immigration and cutting government regulation.
The party endorsed resolutions supporting Trump's signature issues, like repealing Obamacare and punishing so-called sanctuary cities that don't cooperate with federal immigration officials.
When asked if Trump, with his dreadful approval ratings in California, was a net plus for the state party, RNC Committeewoman Harmeet Dhillon from San Francisco said, "It's too soon to tell."
"We're a little bit between a rock and a hard place," Dhillon said. "A lot of our fortunes as Republicans here in California are going to be tied to what happens at the national level and how it’s perceived here. That’s a challenge for us because California Republicans are not the same breed of Republicans as you might find in other parts of the country. We have a very different flavor."
Republicans also seemed acutely concerned about the rising tide of anger and activism from Democrats. Six Republican members of Congress from California are being targeted for defeat next year. At dinner Friday night, radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt warned the party faithful that protecting those seats was urgent.
"If we lose the House, the president will be impeached," he said.
At the same time several prominent Republicans were all too happy to remind anyone who would listen that they didn't always support Trump.
When San Diego congressman Darrell Issa made a passing reference to his supporting Florida Sen. Marco Rubio for president, he playfully added, "People seem to forget that." The crowd laughed.
And Assembly Minority Leader Chad Mayes reminded me that he supported Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a favorite of more moderate Republicans.
Even Faulconer, the party's first choice for governor, declined to endorse Trump, even when he was the last man standing before last year's Republican primary in California.
In many ways, California's Republicans are still "the party of Reagan." The walls at the party's headquarters in Sacramento are lined with Reagan memorabilia, to the exclusion of almost any other Republican.
Still, despite Trump's dismal poll numbers here, party leaders gathered in Sacramento this weekend seem to know that like it or not, their fortunes are now hitched to the man in the White House.
"There’s a whole different attitude at this convention than there would have been had we not taken the White House," said Mark Vafiades, a regional party vice chair from Los Angeles. "This would have been a very depressing place. And just because of that win in November, there’s just a great feeling of optimism here. There really is."
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