Ron Nehring, the former California Republican Party chairman and current candidate for lieutenant governor, was campaigning this week when he posted a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge on Twitter and told his followers he was heading “deeper into opposition-held territory.”
The smiley face that followed suggested Nehring is a happy warrior, but “opposition-held territory” for California Republicans goes far beyond the Bay Area – so much so that the party long ago deprioritized efforts to win any statewide office in November.
Instead, as Republicans gather in Los Angeles this weekend for their biannual convention, activists will rally around a more modest aspiration: To gain enough seats in competitive legislative races to undo the two-thirds supermajority Democrats hold in the Assembly, and to prevent Senate Democrats from reclaiming a supermajority that evaporated when three lawmakers were suspended in separate criminal cases this year.
The effort represents a retrenchment for the Republican Party, which has been drubbed by Democrats in recent elections and has seen its registration fall below 30 percent statewide. Republicans are focusing limited resources on a handful of legislative and congressional seats in the Central Valley and Southern California, areas where the party remains competitive.
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“The Republican Party is no longer a statewide party,” said Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book, which handicaps legislative races. “It’s a regional party.”
Yet shedding superminority status in the Legislature would be significant to Republicans, not only for policy-making reasons – with a two-thirds majority, Democrats can pass tax increases without Republican votes – but also to demonstrate to donors and potential voters that the party still is viable.
“We have a very good opportunity,” said Jeff Randle, a Republican strategist. “It’s really important to show the voters of California and the people who write checks that we can win again.”
One advantage for Republicans is that this is a midterm election with the lowest profile of gubernatorial contests at the top of the ticket. Turnout is expected to be dismal, a model that traditionally favors higher propensity voting Republicans.
“Everything is turnout,” Hoffenblum said the GOP’s prospects of breaking Democratic supermajorities in Sacramento.
In the state’s upper house, Republican success appears to hinge on capturing the Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana, and defending seats held by Andy Vidak of Hanford and Anthony Cannella of Ceres.
In the Assembly, Republicans are focusing on retaining the seat being vacated by Assemblyman Jeff Gorell, R-Camarillo, and they are heavily targeting Democrats Steve Fox of Palmdale and Sharon Quirk-Silva of Fullerton.
“We can take those seats back,” said Charles Moran, chairman of the state’s Log Cabin Republicans group. “That’s when I think donors will start to pay attention, saying, ‘Yes, the California Republican Party can do something,”
He called breaking the supermajority threshold “our No. 1 achievable priority” this year.
Party leaders are attempting to make the supermajority itself an issue in the election. In its promotion of Republican Tom Lackey, who is running against Fox, the CRP said on its website that “every passing day that California Democrats have a supermajority in the Legislature is a threat to conservative values. Electing Republicans to the Legislature is of the highest priority in order to take back the supermajority and rightfully give Republicans a vote in lawmaking.”
The Republican Party has raised about $6.5 million this year, about half as much as the California Democratic Party has raised.
Steve Maviglio, a Democratic strategist, said Republicans “have more targets on their backs than we do because of voter registration trends in districts,” and that low turnout will hurt Republicans as much as Democrats.
“They don’t even have a gubernatorial candidate they can name, and there’s no socially conservative ballot measure, so there’s no reason for that crowd to come out,” he said. “The gap has widened so much in the state that what used to make a chance of Republican victories now is just a pipe dream.”
Jim Brulte, the former Senate Republican leader, has sought since becoming chairman of the state party last year to focus on tactical and fundraising operations and to tamp down ideological disputes within the party.
Delegates this weekend will hear from House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and the party is hosting a dinner banquet featuring “the women of the GOP.”
Yet tea party activists who marched through the convention hotel at the party’s last gathering, in March, also plan a presence. Their agenda includes a panel discussion on immigration, a problematic issue for Republicans in this liberal-leaning state.
The Republican Party’s gubernatorial candidate, Neel Kashkari, and other statewide hopefuls are expected to speak at the convention, but there is distance between them and the party’s legislative goals.
According to a Field Poll this month, Pete Peterson, a candidate for secretary of state, represents the GOP’s best chance at winning a partisan statewide race, and he trails state Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, by 7 percentage points.
Peterson, head of the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership at Pepperdine University, said this week that he will not vote a straight party ticket on Election Day, but he declined to say which Republican candidate or candidates he won’t support.
He said that while local GOP groups have been helpful in his campaign, “the party apparatus itself, if you were to look, say, at the chair and decisions that happen at the more statewide organizational level, it’s been rather a distant relationship.”
Peterson said Brulte appeared at a fundraiser for him recently in Riverside but that the party chairman has failed to articulate a vision for the GOP that would resonate with voters.
“I understand the chairman to be a brilliant strategist, but I also think at the same time that strategy needs to be connected to a vision,” Peterson said. “It doesn’t feel like, to me, that we have put forth a vision to voters who would say, you know what, we have been a one-party state for too long.”
Brulte said Thursday that Peterson “will be a great secretary of state,” adding, “If people are critical of how the party is operating, they have a right to express that opinion.”
Brulte has been praised for improving the party’s financial condition, and Moran said he has “not seen a chairman work as hard as Jim Brulte in a long time.”
For whatever disagreements Republican may have heading into the convention, Moran said, “the main goal here, the only way that Republicans and conservatives are going to get back where we need, is we win some of these legislative races … and we’ve all got to be on the same page.”
He added, “I don’t want to say that it could get worse than it is now, but it actually could. We’ve got to show the unity needed to win some of these targeted seats.”