A grim GOP ponders sparse registration, donors’ doubts

The California Republican Party isn’t dead but there sure are plenty of tubes connected to life support.


That’s pretty much the Number One topic of the November election post mortem: A post mortem on the Golden State’s Grand Old Party.


“Can the party be restored as a viable organization that effectively does what a political party should — build the necessary infrastructure to win elections?” says Rob Stutzman, a long-time GOP consultant. “That’s the question now.”


It’s questionable.


This year, party registration dropped below 30 percent, a record low. Of the state’s 18.2 million registered voters, 5.4 million are Republicans. And they aren’t exactly racing to the polls.


Although final numbers aren’t tallied, turnout in GOP-friendly counties like San Bernardino, Riverside and Orange appears to have been below registration, preventing Republicans from inoculating themselves against the lopsided Democratic strength of Los Angeles, the state’s largest county. Gov. Jerry Brown’s Proposition 30 won by 1.2 million votes – half from Los Angeles.


Tepid GOP turnout is one reason Democrats now hold two-thirds “super majorities” in both the Assembly and the Senate. Absent some cataclysm, the upper house will maintain their super majority for at least the remainder of the decade.


If major donors and powerful political players thought the party was trending perilously close to ineffectual prior to Nov. 6, the perception hasn‘t exactly brightened with the numeric superiority of Democrats in the Legislature.


During this election cycle, incumbent Republican lawmakers — Democrats hold all statewide offices except two Board of Equalization seats – viewed California’s party apparatus as so gummed up they created “leadership“ campaign accounts of their own. That way, more dollars could be given directly to legislative races without state party involvement.


One reason dealing with the party was shunned was its quixotic decision to plunge itself into debt by bankrolling a referendum on the Senate’s redrawn district lines. Voters ultimately rejected the idea by more than a two-to-one margin in November.


Contributions to the Senate and Assembly legislative “leadership” funds were often funneled through individual county central committees, like San Luis Obispo, in which the county chair was considered competent enough to recognize which candidates had a shot and which were destined to be Democratic road kill.


Recently, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times compared the GOP nationally to civilizations like the Incas and the Mayans whose behavior led inexorably to their extermination.


“Instead of smallpox, plagues, drought and Conquistadors, the Republican decline will be traced to a stubborn refusal to adapt to a world where poor people and sick people and black people and brown people and female people and gay people count,” Dowd wrote Dec. 10.


Much of the criticism California Republicans level against their party focuses on this “stubborn refusal to adapt,” as Dowd calls it. Particularly when it comes to “brown people.”


For the second time in as many two-year election cycles, Republicans acknowledge they must do a significantly better job connecting with Latinos.  This admission in 2010 did not translate into changed behavior in 2012.


“The 2010 election results for Republicans were, to be charitable, disappointing,” write Pollster Bob Moore and Marty Wilson, now vice president of public affairs for the California Chamber of Commerce, in a March 2011 article in Fox & Hounds that easily could have been written in December 2012.


“Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina received approximately 30 percent of the Latino votes cast — not nearly enough to win,” Moore and Wilson continue.


“Clearly, Republican candidates must do better and must set their sights on earning at least 40 percent of these votes, if they are to have a reasonable expectation of gaining statewide office. We believe, over time, this is an achievable goal but it will take a sustained and focused communications effort based on issues such as education and job creation. Further, this work can’t wait until a few weeks before the next election – the work must begin today.”


Wilson said in a recent interview Republican performance this year did nothing to change his conclusions from two years before.


While a significant bloc of Latino voters may be aligned with the GOP’s more conservative stance on social issues, as Republicans have long claimed, many Latinos don’t get that far into the party’s platform. They’re turned off by the party’s stand on the threshold issue of immigration.


“It’s the tone, the rhetoric on immigration that causes people to stop listening,” former US Treasurer Rosario Marin told Capitol Weekly. “I don’t blame them. I’m offended myself. The only way Latinos will come to our party is if they feel welcome and respected.”


Marin, who campaigned for Mitt Romney this year, says the nation’s borders should be secure but that the GOP “needs to talk about incorporating people who have been here a long time. We can’t criminalize everybody who is here because they are undocumented.”


Often that offensive rhetoric that turns off California Latinos to Republican candidates originates in other states, like Arizona. But regardless of the state of origin, the fallout tars all Republicans.


Recently in Forbes, California Republican Party Chair Tom Del Beccaro, who announced in October he would not seek re-election to the post, echoed others in his party by saying the GOP needed to improve its outreach to Latino voters – particularly on immigration.


“Republicans need to work with Latinos to achieve border safety and security. By elevating the safety issue on par with the security issue, Republicans can bring Latinos to the table on bringing security to the border,” Del Beccaro writes.


“That means actually sitting down with Latino leaders in America, listening to their concerns and working out a solution to the issue. Republicans should also work to elevate Latino leaders who are strong on this issue.”


Shortly after Thanksgiving, Assembly Republican Leader Connie Conway of Visalia recently named a “Diversity Outreach Team” comprised of Republican staffers of various ethnicities.


“To become the majority party again, we must not only talk to diverse communities but also listen and that’s what our (team) is all about,” she said in a statement.


Sniffs Steve Maviglio of Forza Communications on Dec. 7 in the California Majority Report:   “If Conway was serious about a commitment toward diversity, she could have at least put one of the two Latinos in the GOP Caucus to lead it. Or, more importantly, introduce some legislation critical to the communities to which she is hoping to appeal. Memo to the Assembly GOP leader: It’s not a communication problem. It’s a policy problem.”


The state Republican Party’s “illls” don’t end with its poor performance in resonating with Latinos. Wilson spelled the word like that — with three “L”s — in a post-2010 election memo, to highlight what he considered the party’s key challenges: Latinos, Labor and Los Angeles.


Two years later, Democratic registration and turnout in Los Angeles continues to swamp Republican votes in the so-called collar counties of San Bernardino, Riverside and Orange. Labor’s relentless voter registration, on-the-ground organization and face-to-face voter contact has no GOP equivalent.


More globally says Stutzman: “The party needs to revive a discussion of education reform, which has currency in urban communities. They need to talk more about economic opportunity. They should be champions of micro-lending and mentoring small business people.  A lot of what has to be done is simply demonstrating the party gives a damn about the communities that are killing them at the polls.”


A spate of articles has appeared saying the selection of former Senate and Assembly Republican leader Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga as party chair in February would help kick-start the moribund organization.


Says the San Jose Mercury News: “Brulte Could Breathe Life Into California GOP.”


Brulte is strategic and savvy. He had a penchant in the Legislature for what he called “building bridges” to traditional Democratic constituencies. His leadership led to Republicans winning a majority in the Assembly in 1994, the first time in a quarter century.


“Someone who has had that elected experience and would have that kind of thought process would make an excellent state party chair,” says Conway in a not-so-veiled endorsement of Brulte who, other GOP insiders say, could also restore some confidence in contributors that their money was being used to better effect.


Another headline touting Brulte reads: “Strong Leader May Revive GOP in California.”


But, then again, it may not.


The national party is unlikely to change the tenor of its pronouncements on immigration, abortion or other “wedge” issues to woo more moderate and more diverse voters into California’s GOP fold, state Republican party members say.


A perceived drift to the left could cost the national party strength in its reliable stable of “red” states.


And to what end? At best, an increase in the size of the Republican minority in the very blue Golden State.


“I hope my party does a lot of soul-searching,” says Marin. “Because it’s certainly not good government when all the power is concentrated in one party.”


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