Dan Walters: California Republicans seek path to revival

dwalters@sacbee.comMarch 3, 2013 

A recent series of statewide polls underscored that when it comes to hot-button social issues such as gay marriage, immigration, marijuana use and abortion, California voters hew to the liberal – or libertarian – side.

That orientation, along with the state's changing ethnic and cultural makeup, is why the once-dominant California Republican Party has declined to a state of near-irrelevance, with less than 30 percent of the registered voters, no statewide offices and impotent minorities in the Legislature.

State party conventions are typically about accentuating the positive and promising more gains in the future. But this weekend's state GOP convention in Sacramento has been about acknowledging the party's sad condition – among other things, it's broke and deeply in debt – and exploring ways to rebuild itself.

"I don't think we can get any lower, so the only way is up," Congressman Kevin McCarthy, the House GOP whip, said during an appearance Friday before the Sacramento Press Club.

"Losing has one great benefit to it," GOP guru Karl Rove told delegates. "It gives you the chance to start fresh, to look everything anew and start rebuilding from the ground up in innovative and thoughtful ways that will expand our reach and expand our members."

"Get off your ass," Rove added. "Get back in the game."

In what could be the California GOP's last chance at becoming relevant once again, convention delegates are poised to elect Jim Brulte, a political pro who oversaw GOP gains in the Legislature in the 1990s, as their new chairman.

Brulte sees his job as rebuilding the party's finances and performing other nuts-and-bolts chores – but as much as it needs structural improvement, it needs an image makeover even more to attract a reasonable share of burgeoning numbers of nonwhite and younger voters who now gravitate to Democrats even though many of them are "declined to state" registrants.

There's been a lot of talk about expanding the party's appeal beyond white, middle-aged Californians in rural and suburban areas who have been its core, but whose numbers are declining. However, hard-core conservatives are loath to change and call social moderates "Republicans in name only" or RINOs.

Were the state GOP to somehow set aside the visceral social issues and "embrace a little bit of our libertarianism," as McCarthy put it, it could become relevant again, especially if the now-omnipotent Democrats overreach or fragment into factions.

There is, for example, already a fissure among Democrats on education, pitting teacher unions against parents over charter schools and other reform issues that Republicans could exploit – but only if they get past the social issues on which they are so out of step with the state's voters.

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