Republican Rand Paul, the Kentucky senator and probable presidential candidate, urged a fundamental transformation of his party Saturday, challenging California’s GOP leaders to swell their ranks with diverse candidates that embrace a broad range of ideas.
“I understand we’ve had a few losses in California, right? We haven’t won all the elections recently?” Paul said to laughter from a lunch banquet crowd at the state party’s biannual convention.
To win here and nationally, the party has to become bigger and bolder, he said.
“I say when our party looks like America – with earrings, and without earrings, with ponytails, and without ponytails, with tattoos, and without tattoos ... white, black, brown, we’re going to win again,” Paul said. “But we’re not going to win by what we’re doing.”
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As roughly 1,000 activists gathered to toast their undersized and underfunded ticket of statewide contenders in November’s election, state party leaders are plotting a path to relevancy that mixes new faces and an increased reliance on technology with enduring issues like protecting a landmark property tax initiative.
Party officials here tested new software to reach potential voters in targeted regions of the state.
Mixed among the graying crowd is a new generation of candidates coming up through the ranks.
And as the state GOP works to expand its base by largely avoiding insular fights over issues like climate change and same-sex marriage, it is relying on a political foe that for decades has helped define its ranks in Sacramento and beyond: Democratic “tax-and-spend” interests.
All of this lays bare a party in the throes of transition and set on making incremental gains that leaders confess could take years to materialize statewide.
Speaking with reporters Saturday, state party chairman Jim Brulte said he reviewed the results of a statewide poll Thursday to determine the party’s standing in California: “Does the Republican Party have a pulse?” is how he described the survey’s goal.
“We have really good opportunities if we are willing to capitalize on them,” Brulte said. Groups receptive to the party’s messages of personal and financial responsibility are millennials, Latinos, Asian Americans and nonaligned voters, he said.
“Can we put together the type of quality of candidates that will go out and appeal to our current base and the groups I’ve just suggested we have a shot at? … I think we are. And I think you’ll see some of those results in about six weeks.”
To begin boosting their ranks in the Democratic-controlled Legislature, Republicans are rolling out a diverse and youthful contingent of candidates like Mario Guerra of Downey, Rudy Mendoza of Woodlake and Catharine Baker of Dublin. At a workshop Friday hosted by Republican Neel Kashkari, the gubernatorial candidate said for too long the reflexive opinion about the party has been its failure to diversify. “None of us believe that,” said Kashkari, who is Indian American and Hindu.
Two years ago, Guerra said he helped elect more than 30 Republicans of color to local government offices and since has added another 65 officeholders to the GOP’s thin bench. “I am the future of the party,” said Guerra, a state Senate candidate who was born in Cuba.
Shawn Steel, a former state party chairman, said nowhere is the shift more evident than his native Orange County, where four Republican Asian American women are running for safe or toss-up seats. Young Kim, a Korean American, is taking on freshman Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, D-Fullerton, while Orange County Supervisor Janet Nguyen, who is Vietnamese American, is running against Democrat Jose Solorio of Santa Ana for an open Senate seat. They are key to eliminating the Democratic stronghold at the Capitol.
“This party is going to look very different,” said Steel, a Republican national committeeman.
Yet for all of its successes in advancing more competitive candidates that reflect the state’s changing demographics, the strategy doesn’t always succeed. This spring, the Rev. Rob McCoy, an evangelical, bested moderate Republican Mario De La Piedra, despite the efforts of wealthy donors from outside Ventura County. Holding that seat is seen as crucial to Republican efforts to break the supermajority.
The slate of new candidates corresponds with the party’s efforts to create a standardized data system linking it with campaigns and counties. Officials blamed a 145-vote loss in a 2012 Assembly race to their lack of technical infrastructure. The GOP now is training operatives on the system to collect and maintain data for future election cycles.
Pete Peterson, the GOP candidate for secretary of state, said the party also must do more to help boost voter turnout, particularly in urban centers like Los Angeles.
“If we are a Republican Party that cares about the performance of institutions, we should care also about citizenship,” said Peterson, an expert on public engagement and civic leadership.
“We can’t be the Grover Norquist party – who was famously quoted as wanting to shrink government down to the size it could be drowned in a bathtub. That is a message that is unhelpful for many reasons, the first being it never happened when Republicans did take power in D.C.”
One way for the party to reconnect with its public institutions, Peterson said, is to remind voters that it was the GOP that pushed through the state’s unique initiative and referendum system to serve as an important check. And, he said, when property taxes became unmanageable for many, it was Republicans who championed Proposition 13.
Some party leaders believe the populist overtones of Proposition 13, a third rail of state politics enacted during Jerry Brown’s first stint as governor, could be a motivating factor going forward to prevent Democratic supermajorities needed to roll back the measure.
Democrats largely dismiss Republicans’ concerns as a scare tactic.
“With a dramatic slide in voter registration and no message or achievements, Republicans have no other alternative than to try to trot out the bogeyman of Prop. 13,” said Steve Maviglio, a Democratic strategist. “But voters are smart enough to know that legislative Democrats are working with the governor and have acted responsibly with the supermajority, passing on-time, balanced budgets.”
Still, polls show a growing willingness cut into the tax-limiting measure, and recent legislative proposals should serve as warnings about the lengths Democrats could go if they’re able to retain a two-thirds majority into the future, said Susan Shelley, a San Fernando Valley Republican Assembly candidate who has made “Protect Prop. 13” a campaign slogan. Last year, she said the issue helped propel her to within 329 votes in a special election for the seat.
Michael Shires, an associate professor of public policy at Pepperdine University, said the only reason an effort to levy higher property taxes on businesses and industrial buildings stalled was that Democrats shifted their focus to a sales and income tax hike in 2012. But speaking with activists Saturday, Shires said he doubted the push will ever go away.
“They understand there aren’t very many places you can take money from,” he said. “We are pumping up all these taxes and there’s only one left. (They) have to make businesses the bad guys.”