Steve Bannon, Breitbart News’ executive chairman and former chief strategist to President Donald Trump, turned heads when he agreed to give the keynote address at the California Republican Party’s semi-annual convention in Anaheim.
This has been a lost decade for the CA GOP culminating with the 2016 election that handed Democrats a supermajority in both houses of the California Legislature and a complete sweep of all nine the statewide offices.
It’s no surprise that voter registration has soared for Democrats, reaching almost 45 percent, while Republican voter registration has tanked to just under 26 percent.
To say that the CA GOP is in the abyss would be a dramatic understatement.
So why would anybody, particularly someone like Bannon, be investing any of his time in a place where the Republican Party is completely irrelevant?
I met Steve in 2013, in the aftermath of Andrew Breitbart’s passing. The future direction of the Breitbart platform was in question. Up until that point, I had spent the bulk of my professional life working on Capitol Hill for Republican members of Congress, most notably, Southern California Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista.
When I began working as a media consultant for Bannon and Breitbart, the objective was to build a massive online platform that chronicled the growing divide within the Republican Party. However, as time went on, it became clear that Bannon had a different vision for Breitbart, one that would take it from observer to active participant. It was clear that Breitbart had morphed into a de-facto Donald Trump propaganda machine. I terminated my relationship with them.
Candidly, I am not proud of my time working with Bannon/Breitbart and have since become an outspoken critic of their, and Trump’s, toxic brand of politics. But I do think my experience walking through their world puts me in a unique position to decode the true motivations behind their actions.
It has been no secret that Bannon intends to launch a massive war against the Republican establishment. As the Lannisters have taught us in Game of Thrones, wars cost money and California has a lot of Republican money with not a lot to spend it on.
California’s Republican donors “invested” $55 million in presidential candidates who ultimately dropped out in 2016. According to the Los Angeles Times, “more than 15,000 donors saw a candidate they favored leave the race.”
Traditionally, donors have big-ticket races for governor or senator to steer their resources towards. In California, Republicans have a tough enough time fielding credible candidates who can qualify to run in the general election. This leaves a lot of money on the sidelines and Bannon knows that.
The lack of electoral success has left many big-money donors in California frustrated and skeptical to cut blank checks to the party machine and a consulting class stable that is the definition of failing forward.
You can’t blame big donors for wanting to bypass the party machine to build their own political organizations and super PACs. They more than most, might find Bannon’s brand of brash independence refreshing.
While the big money might be for the taking, I suspect what really appeals to Bannon are the die-hard, grass-roots activists who still enough to show up at a California GOP fall convention in Anaheim.
Despite being at a major voter registration disadvantage, California has more than 5 million self-identified Republican voters. Think about that. That’s more than the population in 30 of the 50 states.
Because California is a foregone conclusion at the national and statewide level, these 5 million Republicans are ripe to be engaged and motivated. They are the perfect audience for Bannon and the most likely to find his message of taking the fight to the broken establishment appealing.
The reality is the California Republican Party is effectively leaderless. Bannon is well positioned to exploit that void and turn die-hard activists into his army.
Bannon has everything to gain and nothing to lose by playing in California. It’s not like it can get much worse for the Republican Party in California.
Correction: An earlier version mistated the number of registered Republicans in California. There are more than 5 million.