Message or Messenger? California GOP Wrestles With Answer

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NOTE TO READERS: This will the last blogging until early October, as I take a break from the Capitol and political coverage. I also hope to bring back the weekly podcast at that time, which so many of you have asked about (and thank you, by the way!). See you in three weeks. --JM

Getty/Kevork Djansezian

LOS ANGELES -- The only thing more reliable at gatherings of the California Republican Party than intraparty warfare has been the familiar groan of the GOP faithful when asked, "What's wrong with the party?"

And perhaps that's what made this weekend's fall convention so unusual. No longer was it something talked about quietly or when pressed by reporters. This time it was a dominant theme... so much so that, at times, there seemed to be a collective therapy session for a party that some say has fallen to the level of "regional" political entity rather than actual statewide movement.

But while a number of prominent Republicans admitted there was a problem, there remains substantial disagreement over just what the problem(s) is (are)... and to what extent changes should be made.

That's the focus of my story that airs Monday morning on The California Report: what do Republicans think they need to do differently? The most recent data shows the GOP spotting Democrats almost 14 points in statewide voter registration, and the party lost every statewide office in 2010 while also shrinking by one seat in the state Assembly.

The weekend conversation about fixing the problem was led at almost every turn by Tom Del Becarro, who became chairman of the California Republican Party in March and who has made outreach his signature issue.

"The path to recovery for our state party," said Del Becarro at Friday night's convention dinner, "lies not with the converted, but going outside of our comfort zone."

Del Becarro encouraged his fellow Republicans to focus on issues that seem especially pertinent these days: the economy, jobs, and taxes. In fact, what may help the California GOP the most in the near future is the grumbling among the state's voters about the current efforts of Democrats on those same issues.

Several days of Field Poll data last week showed some unprecedented softness in support for the state and nation's top Dems. Only 46% of Californians surveyed approve of the job President Barack Obama is doing (PDF), the lowest level of support of his presidency in a state he won with 61% of the vote. Even the state's senior stateswoman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, came in with just 41% job approval (PDF)... her lowest number recorded by Field's pollsters since 1993.

Perhaps that's why some of the Republicans in attendance were so optimistic, an optimism stoked by GOP presidential candidate Michele Bachmann in her Friday night speech.

"I believe that 2012 will be a wave election that goes all across the United States, and will even take in the Golden State," Bachmann said to applause.

But others said that won't happen without a presidential candidate who appeals to more than just conservatives... and, just as importantly... good local candidates.

"It's going to be interesting to see if the state party can recruit candidates that actually are competitive, reflect their districts, and not necessarily act like they belong to some cult," said Allan Hoffenblum, a former GOP political operative who now publishes a widely read non-partisan almanac of state campaigns.

Hoffenblum says there's certainly an opportunity. He points to both the newly and independently drawn political maps (which he and others suggest may not be as bad as the official GOP rhetoric lets on) and the state's new top-two primary system. But he says all of that still may not be enough if the GOP brand in California can't divest itself of the issue to which it's been linked for more than 15 years: immigration. Specifically, the rhetoric on undocumented immigrants... and the party's problems with pulling in Latino voters.

"I'm afraid that there's many within the Republican party that scare off these voters," said Hoffenblum.

KQED/John Myers

The weekend convention's attempt to change that perception was an unusual 'town hall' style event focusing on Latino issues. Produced in conjunction with Univision and with LA-area Latino community invitees, the discussion touched on the issue of illegal immigration -- but only lightly. The GOP panelists seemed hesitant to say anything that would either antagonize the party's conservative base or make for a news story that reinforced a narrative that dates back to 1994's Proposition 187.

Still, most of those involved in the event urged the party faithful to be open to dialogue. "We're the party of opportunity, but we have to change the tone," said Downey city councilmember Mario Guerra. A native of Cuba, Guerra openly empathized with those who cross the border into the U.S. illegally. And he suggested that the current economic crisis may provide Republicans with a window to persuade fiscally conservative Latinos to give the party a chance.

"Now is the opportunity for us to actually have this conversation," said Guerra.

But certain issues -- social and cultural issues in particular -- remain a delicate dance inside state GOP circles. While party leaders spent much of the first two days of the L.A. confab talking about unity and building bridges, fights were simmering over the party's official platform... with a potential showdown over efforts to trim down the document. Some conservatives said the changes would "gut" what already is a "great document."

Such fights, if they again flare up, could limit the state GOP's efforts at finding that much-talked-about sweet spot come 2012.

NOTE: I've posted some snapshots of this weekend's GOPalooza on my Facebook page devoted to California politics.

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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.
  • Steven Maviglio

    Seriously? A “wave election that goes all across the United States, and will even take in the Golden State.” You mean like the one in 2010 that stopped dead at the California border?

    If the Republicans are going to be taken seriously — and they could possibly win the battle over economics — they need to put an end to their anti-immigrant, anti-environment, anti-choice, and anti-public education positions. There’s no sign of that happening.

  • hacimo

    @Steven Maviglio
    What profit a man to win the governors Mansion or a seat in the legislature if he loses his soul? Arnies disastrous regime shows the folly of a republican trying to out-pander the democrats. The basic problem is that the California voter is delusional and petulant and mostly have a victim mentality. They don’t understand that that they actually are the owners of the place and not simply renters. The republicans should therefore stick to their principals till hell freezes over. Eventually the contradictions in democratic policies will become evident and the voters will be ready to face reality. It may be that another year of Obama will do the trick, maybe it will take more. Whenever it happens, the conservatives must keep the candle of the truth burning. Otherwise who will be able pick up the pieces? If we allow ourselves to become as corrupt as the democrats for transient partisan gain then who will save the republic? There is no choice but to stand for what we believe in, and let the chips fall where they may.

  • H Peters

    The problem with the Republicans is that for except the unthinking far right wing, the general population see the Republicans for what they are, unprincipled manipulators in terror of their own right wing media. Republicans had always been about business, but had principles and fiscal responsibility. The general population see that it is the Republicans who are mostly responsible for the current economic situation. Republicans in California and Washington know that taxes must be raised, but they will lose their unthinking base. They know that they must push the anti-immigration issue, as it motivates their unthinking base. They must be anti gay, as it motivates their unthinking base. Returning to true republican principles of fiscal responsibility (my god, at least pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) and keeping the hell out of everyone’s lives, not just right wing people with their inconsistent and hypocritical values. We need a Reagan. We need a Goldwater. A principled Republican, not a right wing manipulator, would clean up right now.