Opinion Columns & Blogs

Peter Schrag: Can Jim Brulte resuscitate the GOP?

As the 2013 season for making lists comes to an end – the 10 best, the 10 greatest, the 10 worst – add yet another 11th-hour contender: The smartest thing the Republicans did in 2013 was choosing Jim Brulte to chair the California GOP.

Now, I concede this is not a tough field. The other leading GOP contenders for smartest are for the most part the stupid things the party stopped doing in Washington. They promised not to shut down the government again. Some stopped shouting no-never to any suggestion of immigration reform. Some recognize women as citizens. Some are even supporting gay rights. And many still don’t get it.

Still, the choice of Brulte in California is significant, not just for the state party or even for the chance to restore some semblance of an engaged, responsible opposition in Sacramento.

Could California, a state not quite as blue as it’s sometimes made out to be, help lead the nation back toward functional two-party governance, as it led in the tax revolt in 1978 and in immigrant bashing with Proposition 187 20 years ago?

Those who knew him when he was the state Senate minority leader and, before that, a member of the California Assembly, will recall him as a politician who was as pragmatic and outgoing as he was conservative.

Brulte realized long ago that his party was huddling in a tent that was too small for the diversity of California. When he was governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger would later tell his fellow Republicans that they weren’t filling the seats.

And at last count, the numbers were famously awful: Early in 2005, more than 34 percent of California voters called themselves Republican; at the beginning of this year, the number was below 29 percent. And as Brulte likes to say, even 100 percent of 29 percent doesn’t get you to 51 percent. The Democrats, meanwhile, held their numbers at a steady 43 to 44 percent.

Brulte knows it’s a steep climb. It took years for the party to get to this point; it could take years to come back.

There have been some positive signs, among them the fact that by October, six months after Brulte became chairman, the party had paid off its debt and now has close to $1 million in the bank. But getting back some big funders doesn’t necessarily mean spring is far behind.

Brulte seems to believe that the party’s problem is not so much its message as its failure to engage, to be heard in the countless communities and regions that it simply conceded to the Democrats. “There’s lots of places,” he said, “where we’re not making a sound.”

People don’t vote for a party, he told me, they vote for candidates. That’s classic California stuff: It’s not likely that you’d hear that from many pols in Boston or Chicago.

But it may be true of California’s anti-political politics. In any case, that seems the strategy: Develop a bench of Republicans in local office, mayors, city council members, county supervisors, one that includes more women, more Latinos, maybe a few gays and you have “farm team” of future candidates for higher office.

Brulte has numbers, and some names: 40 percent of local officials are women, he said, and many are Republicans. Then there’s Carl DeMaio, the openly gay San Diego “New Generation Republican” who’s running for the House in the 52nd District. There’s GROW-Elect, headed by former San Mateo supervisor, former Bush White House aide and former San Diego Chamber of Commerce President Ruben Barrales.

GROW-Elect’s aim is not outreach to Latinos but inclusion – to find promising candidates and get them elected at the local level. Like Brulte, Barrales says you can’t build a party from the top down – that’s failed – only from the bottom up.

But if you look at other numbers, you see how deep the hole is that the party’s dug itself into. Brulte speaks hopefully about the prospects for a House seat next year for state Sen. Mimi Walters in the overwhelmingly Republican Orange County district in which she’s running.

But if she wins, she’ll be integrating the California delegation. Of the 15 Republicans from California in the House, none is a woman. Of all the 232 House Republicans, 19 are women. By stretching the definition of Hispanic to include Azoreans of Portuguese extraction, nine House Republicans are Latinos.

In an era when the country is dividing itself ever more by social and political preferences – when the South is becoming ever more conservative and Republican, the West and Northeast more Democratic – the hole for the California GOP looks even deeper.

But it’s hardly a secret that America’s population is becoming browner by the day. In California, whites are already a minority. And the young are far more accepting of gays, of immigrants, of the world as it is than their parents. Brulte, like some other Republicans, is trying to take that message to his party. Cheer him on.