Capitol Alert

California GOP softens on immigration, but will message get drowned out?

Activists attend the California Republican Party’s fall convention in Anaheim on Sunday.
Activists attend the California Republican Party’s fall convention in Anaheim on Sunday.

The California Republican Party’s adoption of a more moderate plank on immigration Sunday marked a step forward in the party’s long, mostly fruitless effort to draw more Latino voters into its fold.

In a floor vote Sunday, the party struck terms such as “illegal alien” from its platform and withdrew the party’s support for a requirement specifying workers on guest visas get tamper-proof identification cards allowing the government to track them.

But as Republican activists decamped from their fall convention over the weekend, it was unclear how deeply their new immigration platform would resonate. The presidential race – not a party position statement – plays most prominently for voters, and this year’s contest has dwelled on a frontrunner, Donald Trump, who has called undocumented immigrants rapists and criminals.

“It’s terrible,” said Tony Quinn, a political analyst and former Republican legislative aide. “The Trump stuff just drowns everything else out.”

It’s terrible ... The Trump stuff just drowns everything else out.

Tony Quinn, political analyst and former Republican legislative aide

If it continues, Quinn said, “you can just imagine these poor (state) legislators who have to run for re-election when people are debating birthright citizenship and hauling people down to Mexico and that kind of stuff.”

More than in most other states, California Republicans know the consequence of strident rhetoric on immigration. Proposition 187, the 1994 initiative to restrict public services to undocumented immigrants, was later overturned by the courts. But it alienated many Latino voters as they were emerging as a major force in the state.

Republican registration has fallen to 28 percent statewide.

In their second debate, on Wednesday, Trump reiterated that he would build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, then deport “a lot of really bad dudes in this country from outside.” He criticized former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has called for a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants, for speaking Spanish on the campaign trail.

At the party’s convention hotel in Anaheim, many members of the state’s political and professional class were left shaking their head.

“It kills us,” said Assemblyman Rocky Chávez, an Oceanside Republican who is running for a U.S. Senate seat. “If you have Trump up there running his message, that would pretty much assure any Republican in California is going to go down. It’s not going to be just me. It’s going to be Assembly members and senators ... Somebody like him would pretty much damage the image of all the good, hard-working Republicans.”

Even if Trump cannot maintain his early standing in the polls, as many analysts predict, Chávez said, “For California, what he brings back is a lot of the rancor of the 1990s, and I think that will hurt us.”

The new immigration platform was supported by the party’s legislative leaders and passed overwhelmingly on the convention floor. The new language removed a statement that election ballots and other government documents be printed only in English. However, the platform maintains the party’s support for English as the “official language of government.”

Yet even as the state party moderated its own positions, some in its rank-and-file look fondly on an outsider who holds a hard line. Trump, the real estate developer and TV personality, is popular not only nationally but also in California. He leads all other Republican candidates among GOP voters in this state, with 24 percent support, according to a recent University of Southern California/Los Angeles Times poll.

Barbara Fleeman Hazlett, president of a Republican group in northern San Diego County, supported Chávez in his most recent election and hugged him in a lobby of the convention hotel. But she said Trump is “bringing up a lot of good points,” especially on immigration, and Don Genhart of Palm Desert said he plans to open a Trump campaign committee in the Coachella Valley.

“He’s saying what we all feel and are afraid to say,” Genhart said. “The border, the wall, the Trump wall, I think that’s going to be great.”

He’s saying what we all feel and are afraid to say ... The border, the wall, the Trump wall, I think that’s going to be great.

Don Genhart, a Trump supporter from Palm Desert

Conservative activists who opposed the platform change noted that the document maintains the party’s opposition to gay marriage and abortion rights, as well as its protection of gun rights.

California is a major donor state in presidential elections, but its ability to influence candidates’ platforms – or to insert state-specific issues into the contest – has been limited. The primary election will not reach California until June, long after the nomination typically is decided.

Despite the presence of all of the Republicans in Simi Valley for a debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library two days before the opening of the state party convention, only one candidate, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, lingered in the Los Angeles area to address the California delegation. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who had been booked to speak at a Saturday night dinner, canceled on the event to campaign in early nominating states instead.

Huckabee lamented that presidential debates so far have focused more on social issues than taxes, education and infrastructure.

“It’s frustrating, quite frankly,” he said.

Huckabee has mustered attention less for his tax policies than for his defense of Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. In a Twitter feud with California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Huckabee compared Davis’ decision to Newsom’s issuance of marriage licenses to gay couples while mayor of San Francisco. Newsom noted that once the court ordered him to stop, he did.

But Newsom and other Democrats have reserved most of their energy for Trump, delighting in the controversy surrounding his candidacy. Before the debate last week, Newsom released an animated video attacking Trump for immigration policies he said would be a “disaster.” On the last night of this year’s legislative session, Senate Democrats adopted a resolution condemning Trump’s views on immigration and calling on Californians to divest from his businesses.

State Sen. John Moorlach, a Republican from Costa Mesa, viewed excitement surrounding Trump not as a liability, but an opportunity to engage voters on subjects other than social issues. Moorlach, who was moderating a panel on pension reform at the convention, said Trump has shone light on an electorate that is “mad and they’ve had enough and they want to see it fixed,” he said.

Republican presidential candidates other than Trump could help the party on immigration, said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, among others, hold more moderate views on the issue.

If Bush wins the nomination and “he’s going around the state speaking Spanish and offering what Californians might see as a more enlightened view of conservatism,” Whalen said, “he might be that guy (to help the party’s image), too.”

Republicans in Sacramento have tried repeatedly to distance themselves from their Washington counterparts.

Two years ago, then-Senate Republican leader Bob Huff and others from his caucus joined Democratic colleagues in supporting a Democratic resolution urging Congress to take a comprehensive approach to improving the nation’s broken immigration system. In doing so, Huff sought to advance the many benefits to the United States from foreign immigration, citing the economy and social and entrepreneurial aspects.

California Republicans also have been prodded on immigration by their political allies in business. The California Chamber of Commerce has pushed for the California GOP delegation in the House to support legislation that would create a guest-worker program and establish a path to citizenship for those living in the country illegally.

A smattering of GOP state lawmakers also have backed a handful of major immigration bills in recent years, including measures allowing undocumented immigrants to receive driver’s licenses and practice law.

Marcelino Valdez, the state party official from Fresno who authored the amended platform language, said it was an essential message to send in order to remain competitive in elections across California.

“These are things that we can point to when we’re talking to people door to door,” Valdez said, offering a counter to the anti-immigrant exuberance around Trump.

“I was the first to say that what Donald Trump is saying doesn’t reflect who we are as Republicans and conservatives,” Valdez said.

Still, he credited Trump with the state party’s action on immigration.

“Donald Trump kind of put on a little pressure so that we do get this correct – so that people listen to our points of view and where we stand on the issues, and they understand that we are pro-immigrant,” Valdez said.

David Siders: 916-321-1215, @davidsiders