California Republicans Try Balancing Act. Again.

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Republicans party the weekend away in Burlingame. (Photo: John Myers/KQED)

BURLINGAME-- This weekend's gathering of the California Republican Party provided another example of how hard it must be for a political party to dig itself out of a deep popularity hole, when every option comes with a downside.

Throw the party's base supporters some choice red meat... and risk that persuadable voters who tune into the media coverage recoil. But tamp down the fiery rhetoric in hopes of projecting a "kinder, gentler" image... and risk leaving the party faithful full of accusations that moderates are trying to water down the GOP brand.

'Tis a dilemma to be sure.

It's a dilemma that has frankly been playing itself out for several years running at the semi-annual (yes, two of them every year) state GOP confabs. This weekend's gathering, just a short drive south of Pelosiville -- er, San Francisco -- seemed to find California Republicans trying to do both things, though with a decided tilt to the red meat base strategy.

That was best seen by having Newt Gingrich, the opinionated and often bombastic former House speaker, as their featured attraction. In a 45-minute lecture like oratory, the Georgia politician not only excoriated President Barack Obama on foreign and energy policy, he also seemed to wade into issues that certainly wouldn't seem to produce headlines that would leave middle-of-the-road voters clamoring to vote Republican.

Take, for example, his strong endorsement of offshore oil drilling.

"85% of the offshore acreage is not available," said Gingrich in a critique of the President's recent comments about offshore drilling options. "I think you'd find, if we opened up offshore, it would be amazing how fast things would be developed."

While Gingrich went on to say that states should control their own coasts, he boasted that even California pols would change their tune under a Gingrich administration. "Sacramento would start thinking seriously about development" under his proposal to allow states to keep 50% of offshore oil drilling royalties, he said.

Newt Gingrich and his wife, Callista, at Saturday's Asian town hall event. (Photo: John Myers/KQED)

Setting aside recent history in Sacramento -- where even promises of big budget bucks couldn't save a 2009-10 drilling proposal -- a 2011 statewide poll continued to find Californians skeptical about new offshore oil production, with independent swing voters (40%) far less enthused than Republicans (71%). A separate 2011 poll found only 43% of overall voters supportive of new offshore drilling.

And Gingrich himself is unlikely a great photo op for the GOP in California. Thursday's Field Poll (PDF) found a hypothetical November Obama-Gingrich matchup a blowout for the Prez, 56%-33%.

The former Speaker's reception in the convention hall was warm but not outstanding (much more applause Saturday night for ex-candidate and now Mitt Romney spokesman Tim Pawlenty). Still, Gingrich seemed to strike a chord with the party faithful on red meat issues.

And yet, the convention also featured events that sought to tone down the rhetoric. Most notable was Saturday afternoon's Latino town hall event -- the second straight confab featuring such an event.

But unlike last fall, the Q&A didn't seem to dance around the (yes, pun) elephant in the room as much -- illegal immigration. This time, several pointed exchanges debated whether the Latino exodus from the GOP could ever be reversed as long as the party's base maintains its current stance.

GOP chairman Tom Del Beccaro did his best to steer around the issue ("You know why there's a problem with illegal immigration? Because the government's in charge of illegal immigration"). But others said it's okay that there's an internal fight, as long as the party ultimately funds unity on other issues... and more clearly sells those issues to the general electorate.

"I think that the party is it's own worst enemy," said Michelle Rivas, a school board member from Sacramento. "I mean honestly, what's the point? Because all you're doing is giving the opposition exactly what they want."

And as at other recent GOP conventions, delegates and party officials argued that mainstream voters agree with them on issues like jobs and taxes, even if they aren't actually registering as Republicans (current statewide registration has fallen to 30.4%).

"If we have a relationship on all of those other issues," said Del Beccaro, "it's a lot easier for me to work with someone I have a relationship than someone I don't."

Whether they can get that finally kick start that relationship, though, remains the question.

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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.
  • Anonymous

    “You know why there’s a problem with illegal immigration? Because the government’s in charge of illegal immigration”

    What deep insight. I always thought that there is a problem with illegal immigration because of the deep disparity between the poverty (and now violence) on the other side of the border and here. I thought that labor-intensive employers have found an uneven but very profitable relationship with very hard working men and women who risk much for a barely better life. I thought that this internal outsourcing of jobs pressured government services, skewed job markets and supported an underground economy. But I guess I was wrong.

  • Anonymous

    It will take a while longer for California voters, gluttons for punishment always, to see the state continue to crater under Democrat control. If they like what’s happening now then they collectively don’t have much sense.

  • VictorInLA

    PREDICTION: California Dems adopt Gingrich’s idea for a 50% extraction tax as a “good idea,” and then the CA Repubs realize they can’t be satisfied simply taking credit for a good idea if it is actually implemented by Dems.  No, everything the Dems propose must be defeated as if it were the spawn of Satan. Better to be flip floppers than vote ‘yes’ on a Dem proposal that actually balances the budget!