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California’s Receding Incredible Republican Party

As the convention unfolded in half-empty meeting rooms at a waterfront hotel, there was no party for Larry Elder, the conservative radio show host who got the base excited. of the party during the recall – and who found it was nowhere near enough to topple an incumbent Democratic governor. Elder himself was on the opposite coast, tweeting that he was “recovering from the countryside in Key West, Florida.”

Kevin Faulconer, once widely regarded as the future of the state party, was also not on the convention’s agenda. The former San Diego mayor, who did even worse than Elder in the recall election, held private meetings on the patio of a restaurant several blocks from the convention hotel, avoiding any confrontation with party activists who despise its moderate policies.

“We are at what, 23 or 24% [voter registration]? ”said Randall Jordan, chair of the California Caucus Tea Party.“ We don’t have a lot of influence in the state of California.

Resigned to math in a state where Democrats now outnumber Republicans almost twice as numerous, hardly anyone imagines a Republican winning top-tier races statewide anymore. Instead, the state party will compete in local races in parts of the state where the GOP remains competitive, including congressional districts of Orange County and suburban Los Angeles – where the result several House races could determine the balance of power in Washington next year. .

It is not negligible. But we are far from the party of Ronald Reagan. Reduced to choosing narrower targets from the red and purple pockets of the state, the California Republican Party is today the portrait of a shrunken party – less a statewide operation than one that rivals one. in discreet pockets across the state.

“Listen, we are playing in the fights we can win,” said Jessica Millan Patterson, president of the state party.

On Sunday, she told delegates that in 2022, the state party’s goal would be to help Republicans recapture the United States House – “on Nancy Pelosi’s retirement and replace her as president. of the House by a California Republican, Kevin McCarthy “.

For mainstream Republicans who were involved in California politics when the last Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was first elected in 2003, the response to the party’s sinking has long been to support a centrist – a candidate who could appeal to the independents and democrats needed. win in California. It worked for Republicans in previous election cycles in Democratic-leaning states like Massachusetts and Maryland.

But it didn’t work for Republicans in California in 2010, when Meg Whitman unsuccessfully ran for governor. And if anything, the recall laid bare just how more difficult this centrist selection calculation can be in the post-Donald Trump era, in which more moderate and skeptical Republicans have been virtually exiled from the party. . In the reminder, the party’s militant base would not tolerate Centrist Faulconer, depriving him of GOP support. Meanwhile, Elder, the grassroots favorite candidate closer to Trump, won over Republicans but was unable to compete for the Democratic and Independent votes needed to win.

Even Elder could see the writing on the wall for 2022. With Democrats holding such a massive registration advantage in the state, he told Inside California Politics after the election, “It’s hard for me to see that if I had a rematch, the outcome would be very different.

He added: “But maybe I will change my mind in the next few days.”

Faulconer, in an interview on the sidelines of the convention, said a Republican can be competitive in California if he can “build a coalition including Republicans, Democrats and Independents.” (Faulconer said he planned to meet privately with delegates at the convention site, although he didn’t speak there, and “of course” felt welcome at the convention).

And because low-cost statewide races attract less attention than presidential, governor, or Senate races, Republicans may still have an outward chance of picking a lower-level office. statewide here. Lanhee Chen, who was a key advisor to Senator Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, has declared his intention to run for state comptroller. Before a reception he hosted at the convention, Chen, a former member of the Obama administration, said that “winning heals a lot of ailments, and when you don’t win for a long time, people, I think it is. is understandable, get frustrated. “

He said, “They are looking for a way to move forward.

By focusing on congressional campaigns rather than statewide races, the party is playing in the one area where the California Republicans are still a relevant entity – federal or nationalized races. In 2020, although Joe Biden beat Trump in California by almost 30 percentage points, Republicans here overturned four seats in the House. If the party can hold those seats and win one of several targeted Democratic-owned House districts next year, the party’s efforts in California could greatly influence the GOP’s efforts to recapture the House.

That, more than the importance of the state, was the rallying cry for the GOP in San Diego. At an uncrowded convention luncheon, delegates applauded when Rep. Ronny Jackson (R-Texas) told them that “the road to reclaim our country by winning the House majority goes straight through California.”

He added that “one of the fastest ways to fix what’s broken in California is to have a Speaker of the California House.”

When it comes to high-end statewide racing, Republicans here won’t say they’re giving up. Charlie Schaupp, former Republican Party chairman in Yolo County, said “you don’t know what’s going to happen in the next year and a half.” And John Berry, a Redlands delegate, said, no matter the odds, “you never surrender … I’m going to fight a good fight.” “

But what about actually winning? The sequence of illusion that has long crossed the party fades.

“Fans who do what I call political analysis behind the wheel can always explain why lightning is going to strike and, you know, you can win,” said Jim Brulte, former chairman of the California Republican Party and legislative leader of longtime who warned in 2013 that it would take “a minimum of six years” to redress the atrophied party. “But the point is, with the Republican National Congressional Committee focusing on securing seats in Congress, the [state] the party can put its resources into it and make a difference. With the [state] as legislative caucuses do the same for legislative seats, the party can add its resources. “

If a credible Republican can invest an astronomical sum to run statewide, Brulte said, the party should consider backing that candidate as well.

Otherwise, said Brulte, “Investing money in a statewide race so that our candidate can drop 13 points instead of 15 points is a waste of money for investors.”