Opinion Columns & Blogs

Bill Whalen: Putting California’s GOP back together

In the English nursery rhyme, “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men” couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again (another version puts the body count at “four-score men and four-score more”).

As for California Republicans – a faction, its critics would have you believe, that lacks rhyme or reason – a select few repairmen stand out.

Jim Brulte – the first-year chairman of a state party that dipped to an anemic 29 percent of the California electorate, doesn’t hold a single statewide office and is decidedly in the minority in both chambers of the state Legislature – has lectured Golden State Republicans on the need to take the fight to Democratic-friendly communities.

Ruben Barrales, a former aide to President George W. Bush and GOP candidate for state controller in 1998, now heads Grow Elect, a political action group focused on recruiting and electing Republican Latinos.

Here’s a third name to remember, on the Republican road away from perdition: Martha Ryan, until recently the first woman to chair the Lincoln Club of Northern California and now co-head of one of the club’s three PACs – her effort dedicated to underwriting GOP minority candidates in the Bay Area and beyond.

Nearly three years ago, Ryan took over a group that, despite a rich history of richly giving to top-tier Republican politicians and a well-heeled membership residing in some of the nation’s most exclusive ZIP codes along the Bay Area peninsula, had all of $9,000 in the bank. She quickly changed that by hiring a smart executive director (Joe Patterson, a former state Assembly aide), recruiting new members (not an easy task, given the GOP’s demoralizing losses nationally and locally in 2010 and 2012), and by holding star-studded events featuring the likes of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and, on a separate occasion, three former U.S. secretaries of state. Under her watch, membership grew; the club’s coffers were replenished.

Once her chairmanship ended, Ryan didn’t leave politics behind. Though involved with her son in a startup that has revolutionized peer-to-peer lending and also engaged in California’s educational-reform struggle (Ryan supports Students Matter, which is traveling the litigation route to shake up California’s public schools), she persuaded the Lincoln Club to step up its commitment to candidate recruitment – political peer-to-peer lending, if you will.

If this sounds familiar – a Northern California Republican looking to transform the state party inside-out and from the bottom up – it should. Ryan counts among her close friends Charles Munger Jr., the Palo Alto physicist and fellow Lincoln Club member whose deep pockets carried Proposition 20 (nonpartisan redistricting) to victory in 2010. Since then, Munger has given generously to the state party and county GOP organizations, as well as Barrales’ Grow Elect. That gives us four, not four-score, reformers trying to reassemble Humpty.

Why Ryan’s interest in candidates either new to the game or unlikely to seek a major office for several cycles – a departure from most donors’ desire to mingle with big names or rising stars? “If you’re going make a change and you want to have impact in California,” she says, “it really has to start at the grass-roots level.”

If she has the time, there’s one other role for Martha Ryan to play as 2016 approaches: Silicon Valley “rainmaker” for Republican presidential aspirants looking to tap into tech-sector money but needing introductions (the same holds true in the current campaign cycle, where all three of California’s Republican gubernatorial hopefuls having nothing resembling the built-in Silicon Valley network that Meg Whitman sported in 2010).

Opening doors and persuading peers to open checkbooks is what Ryan did for Damon Dunn, the Stanford football standout and Republican candidate for secretary of state in 2010, as well as for Carly Fiorina when the latter took a post helping the National Republican Senatorial Committee step up its fundraising in the last election cycle. Look for the smarter Republicans in the 2016 race to take advantage of Ryan’s connections, should they decide to work Silicon Valley.

At present, three such potential candidates have an inside track with the Northern California crowd: Christie, who rubbed elbows with the Lincoln Club last year in Pebble Beach; former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who champions education and immigration reform and has a father and an older brother who’ve worked the same donor circuit; and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the GOP’s water-carrier/javelin catcher on congressional immigration reform. Two wild cards: Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a second-generation Indian immigrant with crossover appeal to Silicon Valley’s early-generation Indian engineers, and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who espouses libertarian privacy concerns.

Given Republicans’ poor showing in California in recent times, three or more viable presidential choices would seem an embarrassment of riches. Here’s what is embarrassing: California’s dearth of talent in down-ticket races.

Call it donor fatigue: the upper echelon of California GOP’s financial crowd tired of losing elections and the party sinking deeper into irrelevancy.

In what’s becoming a growing trend – here in Northern California, at least – fatigue doesn’t mean ennui. Increasingly, donors are taking matters into their own hands, to steer the state party in a direction more to their liking.

Will it work? We’ll see, a few election cycles from now.