By any reasonable definition, the party’s been left for dead in California: shrinking numbers of registered Republican voters, a complete shutout on statewide offices from governor on down, while grasping for relevance in the state Legislature.
This weekend party officials are holding their annual statewide convention in Burlingame. And while most have their eyes on the November election, in some ways the GOP is still exercising demons from an election 20 years ago.
1994 was the year of the infamous ad for Republican Gov. Pete Wilson. It began with ominous music and a narrator saying, “They keep coming. Two million illegal immigrants in California. The federal government won't stop them at the border, yet requires us to pay billions to take care of them. Gov. Pete Wilson sent the National Guard to help the Border Patrol.”
Wilson cruised to an easy re-election that year against Jerry Brown’s sister, state Treasurer Kathleen Brown. But Wilson’s campaign also awakened a generation of Latinos, driving a wedge between them and the Republican Party.
Numbers are not the GOP’s friend. This month Latinos will surpass whites as the largest single group in California. They, like Asian- and African-Americans, vote overwhelmingly Democratic.
'Nuts and bolts' chairman
After years of infighting that left them deep in debt and lost in the political wilderness, the GOP convinced former state legislator Jim Brutle to become party chair.
Brulte calls himself a “nuts and bolts” chairman. He’s focused not on media coverage (in fact he’s kind of avoiding journalists -- imagine that!) but on building a party infrastructure -- fund raising, volunteers, databases and technology, etc. -- while recruiting viable candidates in races they think they can win.
And he’s taking a page from Woody Allen, who said “80 percent of success is showing up.”
“There are entire neighborhoods and entire communities that Republicans never even showed up in,” Brulte told us. “ We're showing up everywhere and making a case.”
There are hints the GOP’s strategy is beginning to pay off.
A key part of that strategy is recruiting candidates who present a new face of the party, especially women and minorities. GOP consultant Hector Barajas co-founded Grow Elect, a Republican organization that helps elect Latino candidates across California.
Barajas says one key is making a long term commitment to communities the GOP has alienated. He notes what’s happened in the past is that Republicans only show up in Latino or Asian-American communities a few months before the election.
“We say, ‘Here we are, welcome to the party.’” Barajas says. “But once the election cycle is over and done with, then the whole apparatus ends. But we need to be there 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days out of the year. We can't have a program that just starts three months before an election and ends on election day.”
Republicans are celebrating a couple of recent local victories they see as potential templates. One is the upset victory of Republican farmer Andy Vidak, who won an open Senate seat last summer in a heavily Democratic district around Fresno.
And in San Diego Republican Kevin Faulconer defeated fellow City Councilman David Alvarez in a mayoral runoff, despite -- or perhaps because of -- heavy spending on behalf of Alvarez by public employee unions. This in a city where just 26 percent of voters are Republicans.
To be sure, the political landscape for California Republicans remains bleak, especially at the statewide level. Democrats hold both U.S. Senate seats and every statewide office from governor on down. And the GOP has struggled to find credible statewide candidates for the November election.
But Republicans say they are focusing on a few down-ballot races they think they can win, in hopes of taking away the Democrats’ super-majorities in the state Assembly and Senate.
Meanwhile, party chair Brulte says the party will not turn its fortunes around in one, two or even three election cycles.
“The California Republican Party has a lot of work to do, and we've started it, and we're going to continue it,” Brulte says. “It is an uphill climb, but it's a climb we're committed to.”
Scott Shafer is senior correspondent for KQED NEWSROOM, a weekly news magazine program on television, radio and online. Watch Fridays at 8 p.m. on KQED Public Television 9, listen on Sundays at 6 p.m. on KQED Public Radio 88.5 FM and watch on demand here.