by Juliet Williams, Associated Press
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP)—California Republicans on Sunday turned to a familiar face to lead the party back from the brink of irrelevance in a state that once was a GOP stronghold but is now home to a powerful Democratic political machine.
More than 1,000 delegates to the state party's spring convention elected former state lawmaker Jim Brulte as party chairman and charged him with repairing the state's finances and image while recruiting a more diverse pool of candidates.
The hall in the Sacramento Convention Center erupted in applause when his election was announced. It was a rare moment of optimism for the party faithful, coming four months after an election that dropped Republicans to just a third of the state Legislature and cost them a handful of congressional seats.
The party holds no statewide office and dropped to less than 30 percent of all registered voters in California last year.
"If we are going to be successful at winning elections, we have to get out of our comfort zone and stop only talking to the choir and going and talking to the people who don't necessarily share our views, because if we share not only our head, but we share our heart, we will make converts," Brulte told the delegates after his election.
He said he will focus on fundraising and remaking the party's voter outreach and candidate recruitment. Of particular concern is reaching Latinos, the fastest-growing segment of the electorate and a demographic that has generally shunned the party as its political clout has grown.
Brulte, from the Los Angeles suburb of Rancho Cucamonga, also promised to help the party regain seats in the Legislature, saying Democrats controlling both houses and the governor's office "is a recipe for disaster."
What happens in California is important to Republicans nationally because the state has the largest share of electoral votes, at 55. It has not voted for a Republican nominee for president since George H.W. Bush in 1988, and GOP registration has been sliding since it hit 40 percent in 1992.
Charles Munger Jr., the chairman of the Santa Clara County Republican Party who is among the party's most generous donors, said he was confident that Brulte will lift the party from its dire condition.
"Brulte knows how to win elections, how to talk to activists, how to talk to people who care about business and how to bring in large contributors," said Munger, the son of the Berkshire Hathaway vice chairman who has given millions of dollars to moderate candidates and political causes over the last few years. "He knows how to get everybody together."
Brulte has pegged the party's debt in the hundreds of thousands of dollars but declined to specify a number during a news conference following his election Sunday. He said he has commitments of about $200,000 in contributions that he expects to receive within the next month.
In one sign of an attempt to evolve with the times, the state party delegates also elected the first woman and first Sikh, Harmeet Dhillon, to serve as the party's vice-chairwoman. Dhillon, of San Francisco, wants the party to use technology to modernize its registration and outreach.
Her candidacy drew unwanted attention to the party's meeting after the president of the party's San Bernardino County women's group called Dhillon a ``Taj Mahal princess'' in an online post. That posting featured a photograph of an Islamic terrorist.
"There's been a lot of mudslinging in this campaign, frankly, and I think the more that we try to shun people and ostracize people because they may not agree with us 100 percent, that's why we're at 29.3 percent registration in this state," Dhillon told a small gathering of conservatives Saturday.
The party faithful are banking on Brulte to restore their party's luster and its finances, but wide divisions remain among members about whether the California GOP needs a total overhaul or a quick makeover. The party's platform still includes opposition to abortion and gay marriage _ positions that are counter to the majority opinion, according to public opinion surveys.
Brulte appeared to be targeting the right areas for improvement and has "the benefit of extremely low expectations," said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College. Recent comments such as the smears against Dhillon, however, could detract from his efforts to remake the GOP's image and connect with a new base of voters, he said.
"Above all, do no harm,: Pitney said. "His first challenge is to keep Republicans from saying stupid things."
A roster of party officials took the stage Sunday to say that they do not believe the party needs to change any of its principles, just communicate better and with different people.
In addition to reaching minorities, national committeeman Shawn Steel said California Republicans should talk to single, divorced and widowed women whom the party hasn't talked to "in decades."
The need to communicate with a wider audience also was the message on Saturday from Republican strategist Karl Rove, who told party activists they need to field more diverse candidates and reach out to non-white and female voters.
"It's not just the tactical things of a better turnout operation ... we've got a strategic issue," Rove told delegates and party activists. "We have great principles, but we sometimes talk about those principles in a way that makes it sound like it's 1968, 1980 or 2000."
He said the party's losses give the GOP an opportunity to re-evaluate everything from the ground up.
Associated Press writer Laura Olson contributed to this story.