From the minute you stepped into the carpeted ballroom foyer that separated the California GOP’s semi-annual convention from the rest of the Anaheim Marriott, you could see that something in the Republican party had changed.
Trump stickers, Trump cardboard cutouts, the Grizzly bear on the the state flag sporting that unmistakable golden pompadour. While earlier party confabs have been dominated by the image of Ronald Reagan, this year the Gipper was downgraded to an iconographic, replaced everywhere with Donald Trump.
You could see it in the celebrity attendees too. Steve Bannon and Tea Party favorite Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas were invited speakers. The guests included a cavalcade of Trump-era folk heroes: former Sheriff Joe Arpaio from Arizona; Pizzagate conspiracy pusher Mike Cernovich; and Joy Villa, a musician most famous for wearing to the Grammys a gown MAGA (Make America Great Again) gown to the Grammys.
California’s Republicans may be a party divided between the defenders of the establishment and a more fervent Trumpian wing. But if you were to judge strictly by the past weekend’s gathering in Orange County, that war is over. This is Trump’s party now.
The convention’s reaction to Bannon’s keynote speech suggested as much. Over 40 minutes, the former Breitbart editor and Trump political advisor assailed the party’s leaders and orthodoxies. He suggested there has not been a “more destructive” president than George W. Bush, questioned the value of free trade, and teed off on other GOP notables, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, political advisor Karl Rove, and former Republican presidential candidate and war hero Sen. John McCain.
There were plenty of boos in the crowd at the mere mention of Bush, and even more for Bannon’s swipe at McCain. “Hang him!” one attendee shouted. Elsewhere in the room there was strained silence.
Asked later if the speech went too far, Harmeet Dhillon, vice chair of the party, chalked it up to Bannon being Bannon.
“There’s going to be a point at which it’s too much,” she said, referring to the “anti-establishment” rhetoric. “I don’t think we’ve reached that point yet.”
But Bannon was not the only speaker to violate the “11th Commandment,” Ronald Reagan’s guiding principle of GOP party politics that “thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.”
The next day House Majority leader Kevin McCarthy spoke ill of at least a handful of his fellow Republicans in Sacramento, although not by name.
“You will not win the majority by voting against your own principles on a Democratic policy, and let Democratic targets vote no,” the Bakersfield Republican said. “You will not win the majority if you’re concerned about being able to stand behind a podium with a Democratic governor instead of giving the freedom to Californians across this entire state.”
That was a not-so-veiled reference to California’s cap-and-trade program, a climate change policy backed by Gov. Jerry Brown and most Democrats that was narrowly renewed this year with the help of eight Republican lawmakers. At a press conference after the vote, Republican Assembly Leader Chad Mayes of Yucca Valley stood beside the governor.
“California Republicans are different than national Republicans,” Mayes explained after the casting the cap-and-trade vote. He was forced out of his leadership post a month later.
A few hours after McCarthy’s speech to the convention, anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist gave a barnburner in which he labeled Republicans who supported tax hikes “rat heads,” a hearty applause line.
Assemblyman Mayes did not attend the convention. Neither did Kristin Olsen, herself a former Republican Assembly leader and Trump critic. She had resigned as party vice chair three weeks ago amid a campaign by far-right activists to publicize rumors of an alleged affair between her and Mayes and to push for her ouster at the convention.
One of the few public airings of open intra-party strife at the convention itself broke out at the College Republican membership meeting. Two factions—one led by a recent University of Southern California graduate, the other by a University of California, Irvine student and Breitbart contributor—made use of both parliamentary procedure and the Marriott’s security team to vie for control of the organization.
“The college Republicans were never like this when I was a member,” said Shawn Lewis, communications director for the California National Federation of Independent Businesses, observing the shouting and pushing of chairs. “What a shame.”
By the end of the evening the “anti-establishment” faction had elected its own to head the College Republicans.
But that brief dust up did not reflect the tenor of the overall convention, said Paula Prizio, who chairs a youth organization for the Orange County Republican Party and who has attended conventions regularly for the last eight years.
“This convention has been the most upbeat that I’ve ever seen,” she said. Beside the kerfuffle among the college-set, the only Republican-on-Republican animosity she witnessed was directed at George W. Bush and the California lawmakers who voted to increase the state gas tax or renew cap and trade this year. While not all delegates unequivocally support Trump or Bannon, she said most objections boiled down to disagreements over the president’s uniquely undisciplined style, rather than his policies.
And while she acknowledged that wedding the party’s image to Trump may not help the party succeed in California, Trump has helped rile up the base, which must count for something.
“When the grassroots gets fired up, then they really work hard—and they’re pretty fired up right now,” she said.
The party’s leadership strove to keep the tone ecumenical throughout the weekend, focusing on the fundamentals of party building and on every delegate’s common cause of defeating the Democrats. Ideological or cultural rifts torn open by Bannon (or anyone else) were downplayed as insignificant, tactical differences or, at worst, subjects over which one could agree to disagree.
“That approach won the White House,” said Dhillon, when asked about Bannon and the boisterous reaction to his speech. “We’ve been losing elections here in California, so these are the activists and they’re looking for formulas for succeeding here.”
To be sure, the party faces few good political options. With low and falling registration numbers, the party may not be in the best position to be turning supporters away either.
“People are being more vocal, they’re coming out of their shell more,” said Rob Bernosky, a regional vice chairman for the party, who credits the new wave of political energy to Trump. “That’s why if I could do anything I would ‘Trump’ California, meaning ’speak to the issues, don’t try to sugar coat it, don’t try to be politically correct.’”
Even some former Trump skeptics within the party are beginning to come around on the president.
Longtime Republican political activist and gubernatorial candidate John Cox, for one, said he did not vote for Donald Trump in 2016 and instead cast his ballot for Libertarian Gary Johnson.
“I didn’t like the tenor of the campaign, I didn’t like the backbiting back-and-forth, I didn’t like the nastiness,” recalled Cox, who said he now supports the president on a number of issues relating to regulation, taxes, and judicial appointments.
But despite his ambivalence about the Trumpian style of politics, he certainly admires something in its rhetoric. Cox hopes that all the California conservatives who voted to Drain the Swamp will be equally inspired by the slogan he’s using in his 2018 gubernatorial campaign: “Clean the Barn.”
Laurel Rosenhall contributed to this story.