Bill Whalen

Could this be start of a GOP turnaround?

Marcelino Valdez, Central Valley chairman of the California Republican Party, speaks during the party convention Sept. 20, 2015, in Anaheim.
Marcelino Valdez, Central Valley chairman of the California Republican Party, speaks during the party convention Sept. 20, 2015, in Anaheim. The Associated Press

When the California Republican Party gets back in the game – by the strictest of definitions, winning a statewide office – we may remember an otherwise unmemorable weekend in September 2015 as its turning point.

Two noteworthy transactions at the state GOP’s convention in Anaheim could yield significant positive dividends for the struggling party.

First, Republicans agreed to meet only once in election years instead of their usual two. That may not sound like much, but it’s acknowledging an elephant in the room. State parties – especially one as fractious as California’s GOP – are better off with fewer intra-squad scrimmages for the same reason football teams limit their “two-a-days” – fewer injuries and fights among teammates.

Want to move a party forward? Spend less time with a Festivus-like “airing of grievances.”

Second, California Republicans adopted a softer tone on immigration. Read the party platform that came out of the convention and you’ll find familiar conservative chestnuts such as stronger border control, cutting off federal funding of sanctuary cities.

But read further and you’ll also find language that treats California newcomers as, dare I say (and some conservatives dare not), less a social pariah. Gone is the language that “allowing illegal immigrants to remain in California undermines respect for the law.” Instead, a new immigrant “should endeavor to become an American.”

The party also acknowledged that it has to stand for more than protective and punitive solutions. Once the border is secure, the new plank reads, lawmakers should “address the complicated issue of what to do with the millions of otherwise law-abiding folks who are currently here illegally” (though it dodges to question of how to bring said “folks” into the legal mainstream).

For all the clichés of elections and marathons, a better metaphor may be that of a three-legged race. Candidates and party platforms are tied at the ankle. Victory is impossible if one drags the other in an extreme direction.

Consider what happened to the national GOP in 2012. The Republican platform included 789 words on “the rule of law: legal immigration.” But it was only one word uttered by presidential nominee Mitt Romney on illegal immigration (“self-deportation”) that doomed the Republican ticket to just 27 percent of the Latino vote.

Before last weekend’s editing, one could see the same “three-legged” problem developing in 2016 for California Republicans. Two GOP hopefuls vying for the right to replace Sen. Barbara Boxer – state Assemblyman Rocky Chavez and former party chairman Duf Sundheim – favor a pathway to legal status for illegal immigrants. Notwithstanding their lack of money and low name identification, how far could they get if their conciliatory approach on immigration clashes with a bellicose platform?

Two decades ago, then-Gov. Pete Wilson tried to interject some common sense into the national GOP’s position on abortion. The party advocated a “human life” amendment to the Constitution, plus language clarifying that the GOP considered the 14th Amendment’s equal protections applicable to the unborn. It mystified Wilson, a pro-choice governor, that the GOP would choose a position both divisive and never to see the light of day.

Instead Wilson proposed to replace scorched earth with common ground – a “personal responsibility” plank acknowledging a common desire to reduce the need for abortion. (In Wilson’s words: “persuasion of individuals to choose – as a matter of individual conscience – behavior that will not produce unwanted pregnancies, than by government mandates and invasion of privacy.”)

Why not the same approach for an evolving state GOP? Take the thorniest issues that divide the party’s moderate and conservative wings and rhetorically breach the divide.

It’s a state GOP more Californians may like – fewer meetings and more meeting in the middle.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be reached at