California Republicans have been predictably disconsolate since their election debacle of last fall, when Democrats swept them from every contested California seat in Congress and won complete control of state government for at least the next two years.
The GOP gets its first chance to do something about that in its late February state convention in Sacramento, where the main order of business will be to replace the party’s current state chair, the affable former state Sen. Jim Brulte.
A hotly contested race for this potentially significant slot features one moderate and two ultra-conservatives, all advocating change for their party. But none appears willing to accept the reality that until it changes its message, this state’s Republican Party can hope for little more than recovering one or two of the congressional seats it lost in November and perhaps cutting Democratic majorities in both houses of the Legislature a tad below two-thirds.
That’s a far cry from the GOP glory days of the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, when Republicans controlled the governor’s office for 20 years and briefly held a majority in the state Assembly.
Returning to those kinds of electoral performances will require more than the tactical changes advocated by today’s hopefuls for the chairmanship, the relatively moderate former Torrance Assemblyman David Hadley, the right-leaning ex-Orange County Assemblyman Travis Allen and blogger and campaign manager Steve Frank, a former head of the volunteer California Republican Assembly.
Hadley, the party’s current No. 2 official, was the early favorite to succeed Brulte, but Allen and Frank are campaigning hard and reportedly cutting into his edge, noting the ineffective performance of the state GOP’s present leadership.
“Somebody needs to revive this party,” said Frank, who has worked with local candidates from San Diego in the south to Del Norte County on the Oregon border. “In this last election, there really was no Republican message. We need to go after not just Republican voters, but California voters of all kinds. We need to stress quality public education including school choice. We need to stress public safety and everyone’s right to safe streets and homes. And we need to push for lower taxes. Every dollar of tax is a dollar’s less freedom.”
Allen, who placed fourth in last spring’s primary election run for governor, stresses failures by past GOP managers. “The party has been devastated by 20 years of failure by the Republican establishment, culminating in one of the worst election losses in our state’s history. This short-changes people who deserve a better state.”
Both challengers to Hadley insist their party is demoralized and, as Allen says, “has not effectively registered voters in many years, while the Democrats have industriously schemed to take over California by giving drivers licenses to illegal immigrants, legalizing ballot harvesting and other practices financed by left-wingers like Tom Steyer, Michael Bloomberg and George Soros.” The three are all billionaire backers of Democrats.
Hadley, meanwhile, says the fall election was “a forceful reminder of how much work we have to do to change the politics of the Golden State.”
None of the three mentions anything about distancing the state party from President Trump, whose unpopularity in California was a key election factor.
Allen and Frank both say Republicans need to adopt some techniques used by Democrats last fall, especially ballot harvesting, in which paid party workers went door-to-door helping voters fill out and sign absentee ballots, then took responsibility for turning them in. This practice, illegal before California law changed in a 2016 party-line legislative vote, was one reason ballots counted after Election Night leaned so strongly Democratic.
“We need to use that same practice and take it to a new level,” said Frank. “For example, we should be urging evangelical voters to bring absentee ballots to their churches, help them fill them out there and then help them mail in or file those ballots. We could have done it last fall, but we never take advantage of churches where a lot of congregants share our values.”
And yet…all this will remain in the category of big talk until Republicans create an appealing, positive message and actually take advantage of the new election laws.