Republicans Rumble, Reconcile at Confab

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KQED/John Myers

Republicans are fond of invoking just about everything Ronald Reagan, but their biannual state convention routinely sees shattered into tiny pieces what Reagan liked to call the party's 11th Commandment: thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.

This weekend's confab here in Sacramento was no exception. In fact, even though the end of the weekend saw reconciliation on a few fronts, a larger question may linger on: can the state GOP be right... and win... at the same time?

Republican infighting used to be more about conservatives vs. moderates, with flashpoints ranging from social issues to illegal immigration. But few dispute that the conservatives won the fight for control of the party several years ago, leading some to think those squabbles were a thing of the past. Nope.

The headlines after day one of the weekend soirée focused on a fight over how to deal with Proposition 14, the top-two primary system approved by voters last year. At issue were multiple proposals to reassert some formal GOP role in primary elections. In the end, the party chose a system that essentially establishes a mirror election starting in 2014 -- where Republican voters in each district select, by mail, an official party "nominee" who then qualifies for party assistance and, presumably, thus has a leg up on any other GOP candidates on the ballot.

That proposal was chosen over one from outgoing party chair Ron Nehring that would have given the party officials the power to pick a standard bearer. And there's where the rumble kicked off... at the very first discussion over the proposal, in a committee meeting that state Sen. Sam Blakeslee (R-San Luis Obispo) said amounted to a stacked deck and later called "thuggery" on the part of Nehring. (Video below from the San Francisco Chronicle's omnipresent Carla Marinucci.)

The fact that the blowup -- between conservatives -- represented something of a fight over tactics seems most important. As one convention goer tweeted,"(the) fight now btwn winners who want to govern v. those content w/being loud & obtuse."

It was a point made even more strikingly Friday night by the frank assessment of the party's volunteer fundraiser Jeff Miller. Miller told the convention's rules committee that big donors to the California GOP are, in his words, "frustrated" with the party leadership.

"(Donors) think the party is on the brink of irrelevance," he told the committee in front of a standing room only audience. "They think the party spends most of its time speaking to 30% of the state, as opposed to a majority of the state."

In an interview afterward, Miller made the point of the GOP financial backers this way: "It's about being solution oriented. And it's about the fact that you can be a conservative and also be about finding solutions for the state and for the voters."

No one knows whether those donors will ultimately give up and find somewhere else to spend their money (and Miller did not publicly identify the grumpy givers), but a quick glance at 2010 campaign records shows the California Republican Party relies heavily on a relatively small number of big contributions. Led by a few individual big donors (ex-Univision CEO Jerry Perenchio, investment advising icon Charles Schwab) and some of the state's biggest businesses (PG&E, Chevron, AT&T), the state GOP raised some $20.4 million in 2010. But as of last month, the party reported having only $126,248 on hand. Democrats, by comparison, reported having $5.8 million on hand. As one observer noted, without cash the state party becomes little more than a "social club."

Republicans are also, as everyone might imagine, trying to come to terms with what can safely be called a major shellacking at the polls last November. Losing every statewide election, plus losing ground in the Legislature (one seat in the Assembly), hasn't been that easy to swallow -- especially in a year where Republicans were victorious in so many parts of the country.

So what did they do wrong? Outgoing chairman Nehring, who assumed control four years ago, told reporters Friday that it was a lack of outreach. "Our Republican candidates must dramatically improve their performance in our urban and immigrant communities," he said. When pressed by a reporter on how that's different from what losing GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman did, Nehring said it has to be over the long haul and not just in the run-up to a general election.

The newly elected chair of the state party, Tom Del Becarro, reiterated the issue on Sunday by saying that there's been too much preaching to the choir. But how to change that -- in a state where GOP registration has dropped more than four points since 2003 (PDF) and where none of the 58 counties has a GOP majority -- remains the real question.

In the meantime, Republicans seem to be eager to accept new approaches... but refuse to discard existing ones. That disconnect seemed especially clear at Saturday's convention luncheon. In the keynote speech of the event, national commentator/pollster Frank Luntz told California Republicans that leaders who stand up and are responsible, without caveats, are rewarded.

"'No excuses' is the ultimate definition of accountability, which is what (voters) want and what they have a right to expect in government," said Luntz. "Someone who stands up and says 'I will do this, no excuses' is accepting personal responsibility for their actions."

But Luntz's advice felt a little at odds with the Republican who spoke before him, state Board of Equalization member George Runner. Runner, a former state senator, delivered a red meat speech about bloated state spending and wasteful Democrats, punctuating it with a reference to a budget process in which, thanks to 2010's Proposition 25, Democrats have the upper hand.

"You (Democrats) asked to be in charge, and now you are," said Runner. "But let's not give them any help. Let's go ahead and make them make their hard decisions."

How Republicans reconcile those two bits of advice... if they even can... may shape their chances for actually taking the fight to the streets, instead of sparring with each other twice a year within the confines of the party convention.

My radio story on the weekend convention airs Monday morning on The California Report.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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