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Republican Reboot

At a Low Point in State GOP History, Party Leaders Plot a Political Comeback


Jim Brulte doesn’t sugarcoat it, as befits a backroom politician who stands 6’ 4”, weighs 300-plus pounds, and was nicknamed “Big Man” by ex-president George W. Bush.

Unlike his recent predecessors, as California Republican Party (CRP) chair, Brulte has finite patience for partisan happy talk, as he showed with some direct and candid answers to political reporters at last weekend’s state GOP convention.

“This is a party that, whether we like it or not, has been in decline for over two decades in this state,” he said as the event began, plopped on a couch in his ninth-floor suite of the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Burlingame. “I’d actually like to win some things.”

Jerry Roberts

Brulte began his political career in the 1980s, working for Vice President George H. W. Bush as an advance man, a trade that rewards resourcefulness and practicality over rhetoric and pretension, at a time when the two parties were competitive in California. But in following years, when he would serve as minority ​— ​never majority ​— ​leader in both the Assembly and the State Senate, his party’s power and influence steadily declined amid major demographic changes and the GOP’s shift to hard right on cultural issues like abortion rights, gay marriage, gun control, and immigration.

A year ago, as Democrats held every statewide office and commanded two-thirds majorities in the Legislature, remnants of the party’s moderate establishment wing prevailed upon Brulte to leave his lucrative gig with one of Sacramento’s top lobbying and consulting firms in order to try to rebuild ​— ​and rebrand ​— ​the CRP.

So it was that convention signs, speakers, and talking points alike proclaimed, “Rebuild. Renew. Reclaim.” over the weekend, signaling the three goals of the state party’s comeback strategy for 2014: helping Republicans maintain their majority in the House of Representatives by holding incumbent seats and challenging Democrats in key toss-up districts; ending the Democrats’ crucial legislative super-majorities by winning back erstwhile GOP seats; and building up a depleted bench of statewide candidates by focusing money and energy on local, nonpartisan races.

Exhibit A for the plan at the convention was Kevin Faulconer, the recently elected mayor of San Diego. Although the mayor’s office is nominally nonpartisan, state Republicans poured money and volunteers into his campaign, a case study of Brulte’s play to groom credible state contenders by electing candidates with “Republican principles.”

“A lot of people are like moths that like to go to the lights. The lights are those high-profile races,” Brulte told reporters. “We’re spending a lot of time grinding it out on the ground. That is not glamorous. That is not exciting, [but] you rebuild a party from the ground up.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge for Republicans is to cut into the overwhelming majorities Democrats routinely win across the state among Latinos, by far the fastest-growing group in California. As Brulte dates the start of Republican devolution back 20 years, it’s instructive to recall that it was 1994 when Governor Pete Wilson won reelection with a campaign focused on the immigrant-bashing Proposition 187 and featuring his notorious “They Just Keep Coming” TV ad.

At the convention, it spoke volumes that one of the best-attended events was a session sponsored by Grow Elect, a statewide political action committee that recruits, trains, and works to elect Latino Republicans, which is led by Ruben Barrales, a former San Mateo County supervisor and GOP White House aide.

“I do not buy the narrative that we can’t win votes in every community,” Brulte said. “We have ceded far too much territory to the Democrats because we’ve failed to even show up to try to compete. And that’s on us.”

The Wannabes: Not surprisingly, neither of the GOP’s top contenders for the dubious right to challenge Gov. Jerry Brown publicly agrees with the wink-wink-nudge-nudge assessment of party leaders that there is no chance of ousting the Democratic incumbent. Republican voters could not have a clearer choice: Assemblymember Tim Donnelly is an Inland Empire Tea Party member ​— ​pro-God, pro-guns, and anti-gay ​— ​while Neel Kashkari is a coastal moderate and ex–Goldman Sachs exec ​— ​pro-choice, pro–gay marriage, and pro–some gun control. Donnelly won cheers and huzzahs from the blue-hair, turquoise-string-tie crowd that predominated in Burlingame; given his beliefs, Kashkari won a victory when his convention speech gained polite applause instead of a torrent of boos.

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