California Republicans are anticipating a tough election next year.
Their candidates competing in premier races for U.S. Senate and governor will have to strain to advance past the primary. Their prospects in down-ballot statewide races are no better. In the Legislature, it’s uncertain whether they can muster the victories to break Democratic supermajorities that render the GOP powerless to stop tax increases. Seven House Republicans are defending districts won by Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump last year.
But for one weekend, party activists at a convention in Orange County shouted and cheered and enveloped themselves in a sentimentality that has mostly eluded them in California: That feeling of winning, and having a voice, again.
“Finally,” said Randall Jordan, chairman of the California Tea Party Caucus, “California Republicans are waking up and figuring out the Trump road is the only road.”
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The tea party was hosting a forum on “election integrity,” an issue that Trump has formed an advisory commission to explore. Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, was flown in as their honored dinner guest.
To rebuild a stable of viable candidates, drive excitement among voters and begin notching victories, “We have to become more Trumplike,” Jordan concluded.
Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist and the chairman of Breitbart News, led a parade of guests advocating for populist stances on immigration and other issues that the wounded state party has worked for years to subordinate, mostly out of fear that it would drive them deeper toward irrelevancy.
Bannon argued in the speech that U.S. citizens should have preferences for jobs and economic opportunity while slamming “corporatists and globalist elites.”
Yet even as they celebrated their dominance in Washington, some Republicans worried about deepening rifts in their ranks and possible backlash from voters.
Joe Justin, a Republican consultant from Sacramento, said the party’s band of disruptors at the weekend event may embolden and motivate Democrats, many of whom took to social media to snark at the party’s sharp right turn.
“It’s trying to make 1,500 people happy, and the question is at what expense?” Justin asked. “It’s going to make it more difficult from my perspective to practice the politics of addition.
“I get the appeal to the blue collar voter,” he said. “Our problem is with people who think that we hate them.”
Following a string of state conventions where activists moved to embrace immigrants and chartered the gay Log Cabin organization – efforts to broaden their appeal amid shrinking voter registration – there was little doubt that its loyalties this time belonged to Trump.
The president’s likeness was plastered on walls and emblazoned on sweaters and hats with Trump-inspired slogans like “Make California Great Again.”
Joe Arpaio, the former Maricopa County, Ariz., sheriff pardoned by Trump in April after being convicted of contempt for disobeying an order barring his traffic patrols from targeting immigrants, marveled at the Republican exuberance in the halls. Trump, he said, has been like a defibrillator for moribund conservatives.
Arpaio said Trump ambassadors like Bannon, who used to visit his office representing Breitbart News, are helping spread the tough-on-immigrant gospel and whipping “disloyal” Republicans into shape as Trump’s wingmen outside the White House.
“Look at me,” Arpaio said. “I did a lot when I was sheriff, but now I have a little more freedom. Not that I was bashful before.”
Bannon’s sprawling defense of his economic worldview, delivered late Friday, had him violating Reagan’s 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” He tore into former President George W. Bush and dismissed Sen. John McCain as just another senator from Arizona. The boisterous crowd followed along, booing at the mentions of their names.
As Bannon took the stage, Tom Shortage, an analyst with the nonpartisan California Target Book, which handicaps state races, looked out suspiciously: “At some point you have to wonder if it’s a sales tactic to actually fill seats,” he said.
Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst at the University of Southern California and veteran of scores of state party conventions, said the lack of big-name candidates running at the top of the ticket likely necessitated the narrow focus on Trump. Rather than losing ground because of Trump, she said the seven targeted Republicans may yet gain.
“The governor and the Senate are lost causes, and without something to bring out the base they are really in trouble,” Jeffe said. “What do you do if you are low as you could possibly go and you need to protect your legislative and congressional candidates? You throw some red meat at the the base of the party.”
State GOP Chairman Jim Brulte said he had no concerns about any backlash for the party.
Spirits remained high even as the state party is struggling to recruit enough candidates for statewide office.
Jon Fleischman, the conservative blogger, political consultant and former state party activist, doesn’t discount the chance that no Republicans will advance to November’s statewide elections. “There’s the possibility,” he said, shrugging.
For businessman John Cox and state Assemblyman Travis Allen, competitors for governor, that is the immediate concern.
Both are hoping to ride a wave of voter resentment over Democratic overreach in Sacramento. They each have signed onto separate repeals of a $52 billion, 10-year hike on fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees. If a repeal qualifies for the November 2018 ballot, Fleischman said, “it will be very, very helpful.”
Brulte predicted it would ramp up turnout and help retain seven targeted House seats.
“They broke it,” he said of Democratic control of the state. “They have to own it.”
Republicans’ prospects in the Senate race are dimmer. Sen. Dianne Feinstein is running for a fifth full term, challenged by fellow Democrat Kevin de León. Billionaire environmental activist and donor Tom Steyer is considering a bid of his own.
Chatting with attendees, Republican Stephen J. Schrader, a candidate for U.S. Senate, said he wasn’t concerned about de León’s entry into the race last week, calling him “another target for my campaign.” A former career counterintelligence agent, Schrader described his employer as a “major state agency devoted to public safety,” but added he couldn’t say any more.
“I don’t have a strategy for winning the election,” Schrader said. But then, he added, “I have a strategy for defeating my opponents.”
Democrats hold a more than 19 percentage point advantage in registered voters. Republicans haven’t won a statewide election since 2006.
But they’re winners in Washington, with a path for candidates here to follow, as Bannon put it during his brief words of encouragement.
At a booth nearby, Cindy Verdugo of Placer County sold sweaters and caps with the “Trumpifornian” logo, a bear with a swoosh of hair modeled after Trump’s. Another attendee was trying to get activists to support an improbable recall of Gov. Jerry Brown, who must leave office next year because of term limits.
Rachel Gunther, of the recall campaign, insisted that there was still time to vote out Brown, if only to save the state from certain ruin.
“It’s costing us money, aggravation, and our safety and security,” she said. “He’s Obama-izing the last 15 months in office.”