The California delegation to the Republican National Convention settled in here over the weekend, marooned amid sunburned vacationers and cannonball contests at a water park 60 miles from Cleveland and the convention hall.
The remoteness of the encampment reflected difficulty housing the nation’s largest delegation, but also the weak standing of the minority party from a heavily Democratic state.
A child shot by on a zip line, and Dennis Revell, a delegate from Granite Bay and son-in-law of Ronald Reagan, said, “It reminds me of a bad Chevy Chase movie.”
Yet between the water slides and “authentic African-themed guest rooms” at the Kalahari resort in Sandusky, California Republicans could find one reason to take heart. Unlike many other state delegations, whose parties include delegates loyal to Republicans other than Donald Trump, the California group formed after a late-arriving primary in which the New York businessman ran unopposed. All but three of the state’s 172 delegates were hand-picked by Trump, and the others – California Republican Party Chairman Jim Brulte, National Committeewoman Linda Ackerman and National Committeeman Shawn Steel – are all committed to him, as well.
While Trump labors this week to stage a show of unity amid tension within the Republican Party, no delegation may be as loyal to the presumptive nominee.
“We are the firewall,” said Steel, who once called Trump a “clown” but came to accept him as preferable to Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee. “That’s our job.”
The prospect of a successful uprising by Republicans seeking to deny Trump the nomination all but evaporated last week, when the convention rules committee quashed proposals by dissident Republicans to buck GOP dictates that bind nearly every delegate to a candidate – the majority of them to Trump.
Still, calls for roll-call votes or other disruptions on the convention floor this week could produce hours of live television embarrassing to Trump’s campaign. In an effort to highlight Trump’s supporters, California’s delegation has been assigned floor space at the front of the convention hall.
Brulte said of the delegation’s seating assignment, “We’re the largest delegation, and it is the most Trump-loyal delegation.”
It reminds me of a bad Chevy Chase movie.
Dennis Revell, a son-in-law of Ronald Reagan
Four years ago, at a less-volatile Republican National Convention in Florida, advisers to Mitt Romney included California in plans to counteract any uprising by Ron Paul supporters. At the California Republicans’ hotel that year, delegate whips were told to start pro-Romney chants to drown Paul supporters out.
At a reception for California delegates on Saturday featuring a whole roasted hog and a bubbling fountain of barbecue sauce, Tim Clark, Trump’s California political director, said no special preparations are required this year.
“We were built to be a pro-Trump battle group,” he said. “This crowd’s going to be loud.”
The composition of the California delegation appeared far shakier less than two months ago, when Trump struggled after sweeping the state’s June primary to assemble a roster of steadfast supporters.
Mario Guerra, a member of the California Republican Party’s board of directors, withdrew after Latino activists raised objections. Bob Pacheco, a former state assemblyman, said he was mistakenly included as a delegate. William Johnson – a white nationalist – was initially included on the slate in what the campaign called a “database error.”
By the time the list of delegates was finalized, it included a large number of inexperienced, first-time delegates in line with Trump’s outsider status and populist appeal, but also more than a third of the California Republican Party’s board.
After Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich dropped out of the Republican presidential race, said West Walker, a Tracy schoolteacher and chairman of Californians for Trump, the Trump delegation became more of a “mixture of some of the political class and donor class, and the grass roots as well.”
“I think that was a good strategy,” Walker said. “You want to make sure you have experienced people.”
Now, said Tirso Del Junco, a former state party chairman who initially endorsed Cruz but is now a delegate for Trump, “You have to understand, the California delegation, it’s Trump’s delegation.”
As anti-Trump forces lobbied delegates in Cleveland ahead of the convention, Harmeet Dhillon, vice chairman of the California Republican Party, emerged as a vocal supporter of Trump. Of the opposition effort, which she and former Sacramento-area Rep. Doug Ose helped turn back in committee meetings last week, she said, “Increasingly, those people are looking like spoilers, like sore losers, really.”
We were built to be a pro-Trump battle group.
Tim Clark, Donald Trump’s California political director
“Nobody forced me to be a delegate,” Dhillon said. “I chose to be a delegate knowing what that choice meant … I raised my hand and said it looks like this guy is going to be our nominee, and this is the guy I can support.”
Trump’s hold on the California delegation belies uneasiness surrounding his candidacy in the state. His signature proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, while supported by a majority of rank-and-file Republicans in California, has alarmed members of the party’s professional and donor classes more acutely in California – a diverse border state – than in many other parts of the country. The state party, which holds no statewide office and neither chamber of the Legislature, is desperately seeking to grow its ranks after watching its statewide registration fall to less than 28 percent.
While Trump delegates cheer for their candidate in Cleveland, said Thad Kousser, a political science professor at University of California, San Diego, Trump “just shines a spotlight on a problem they’ve had since Prop. 187,” the 1994 ballot initiative to restrict public services to undocumented immigrants. Though later overturned by the courts, the measure alienated many Latinos.
Trump has vowed to make a “big play for California” in the general election, and his campaign continues to recruit volunteers in the state. But no Republican has carried the state since George H.W. Bush in 1988, and Trump trails Clinton by 30 percentage points in a head-to-head matchup, according to a Field Poll last week.
“This has to be one of his weakest states,” said Mark DiCamillo, director of the poll.
As delegates arrived in Ohio, they mingled over hosted drinks and began deciding between outings this week to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton or the roller coasters at nearby Cedar Point.
At the end of the week, Dhillon said, the delegates will “take the energy” of the convention home with them. For a Republican from California, where “weeks and months can go by” without seeing another Republican, she said, gathering with like-minded activists is a rare treat.
But first, the water park.
Brulte announced he would take “all comers” in a cannonball contest.
Christopher Cadelago of The Bee Capitol Bureau contributed to this report.