Critical choice for California GOP: Which door—if any—leads to revival?

This political convention has the distinct feel of an intervention.

As California Republican delegates descend on Sacramento this weekend to elect a new party chair, rally what’s left of the troops and talk Election 2020, many will be pondering—and likely fiercely debating—a much bigger question: What now?

After November’s electoral hammering, the culmination of a decade of state party decline, influencers are proposing three ways forward. They’re all about the biggest elephant in the room: President Donald Trump.

Their options: ignore him, embrace him or reject him.

Proponents of each approach warn that choosing the other paths will doom Republicanism in California to continued irrelevance, if not outright destruction. And based on the way things are going, it’s conceivable that all three are right.

“Think about the Californian who is living their life,” said Catharine Baker, a moderate Republican who lost her East Bay seat in the Assembly to a Democrat last year. “They see that the leadership of the California Republican Party has doubled down on the very thing that has made them feel isolated? They will leave.”

The “ignore Trump” strategy is advocated by Jessica Patterson, vying to be the next chair of the state Republican Party. A party insider, she would be the first millennial, and the first Latina and woman to hold the job. Stuck between a party base in lockstep with Trump and a broader, more diverse California electorate that generally disapproves of him and many of his policies, her strategy is location, location, location.

“We’re going to super-localize all of these races,” said Patterson, who is endorsed by a majority of the party’s legislators and its 2018 gubernatorial candidate, John Cox. “Regardless of what the national controversy of the day is, we’re going to be focused on the things that really matter to Californians.”

The “embrace” strategy is espoused by her two rivals in the chair’s race: former Assemblyman and gubernatorial candidate Travis Allen from Huntington Beach and Simi Valley Republican activist Stephen Frank. This week the two issued a joint message of “RESISTANCE” against Patterson, whom they deride as a “career staffer,” asking their combined delegates to support whomever of the two candidates remains after the first ballot.

“The California Republican Party establishment for years now has told Republicans that in order to get elected in California, they need to look and sound more like Democrats,” said Allen, who lost a bid for governor last year promising to “Make California Great Again.”

“Very simply, the Republican Party must stand for our Republican values, our Republican ideals, and support our Republican president,” he said.

Rather than blame the 2018 blowout on ideology or branding, they point to what they see as organizational missteps—promising if elected to spend more party money on voter registration and to play a more active role in messaging.

“We were not murdered—it was a suicide,” said Frank. ”When you don’t register voters, when you don’t run candidates, when you don’t have a message that you promote, you’re going to die.”

As for the “reject Trump” strategy, no one is competing to lead the party on that one—which is, its proponents say, precisely the problem.

“This is not rocket science,” said GOP consultant Mike Madrid. “Anyone who thinks that supporting Donald Trump or Donald Trump’s policies is a path to victory in California is delusional. Like, clinically.”

He argues that Patterson would make the more competent party leader, but that unless she publically distances herself from the president, the party is only treading water. “Will she make a better chair? Yes,” he said. “Will it make a difference? No.”

Only a few Republicans have scored recent wins in blue states: governors such as Larry Hogan in Maryland, Charlie Baker in Massachusetts and Phil Scott in Vermont. All three employed the “ditch Trump” strategy.

Carving out an identity as a Trump-skeptical Republican may be easier said than done. With the defeat of Baker, a pro-choice Republican who supported gun control and climate change policy while in the Assembly, the last red holdout on the San Francisco Bay Area political map vanished. San Diego Assemblyman Brian Maienschein, another moderate, squeaked by last November—and promptly became a Democrat.

“Today Republicanism and Trumpism is the exact same thing in voters’ minds, so it’s hard for us in California to try to go out and create a new narrative that we are different,” said Assemblyman Chad Mayes, one of the founders of the centrist Republican group “New Way California.”

As the party decides how to redefine itself, the stakes are high—potentially life-or-death.

Last month, Mayes offered a prediction on Twitter: If Allen wins the chair race, “more sitting legislators will leave” the party. “Demogoguery and division proves to be a losing strategy.”

Mayes now says he was referring to some of his fellow legislators, yet he did not rule out leaving either.

“I believe in the cause of liberty, and the Republican Party was always the vehicle in which you would advance that cause,” he said. “At best, that vehicle has flat tires, and at worst it probably has a blown engine and needs a new engine. So my hope is that we either get a new engine in that vehicle or—if the vehicle can’t be fixed—then it’s time to get a new vehicle.”

The GOP’s share of California’s registered voters has been lower than the Democratic Party’s for decades, but until recently Republicans have turned out in greater numbers.

The math caught up with the GOP in 2018. For the first time in state history, registered Republicans made up a smaller share of the electorate during a general election than third party and no party preference voters combined, said Paul Mitchell of Political Data Inc.

The winnowed rank-and-file is far whiter, older and more concentrated in rural areas than the rest of the California electorate. The districts now represented by Republicans in the state Capitol “look a lot more like Ohio and eastern Pennsylvania than they do the rest of California,” said Madrid. “That is not what California is and has not been for 20 years or longer.”

Half of voters who cast a ballot in California last year were under age 50, according to figures from Political Data Inc. But among Republicans, more than two-thirds were over 50.

The state party is also 70 percent white, compared to just over half of registered voters in California, and far less of the state population.

Unsurprisingly, some of the state GOP’s most longstanding and predictable allies have been diversifying their political investments.

In 2010, the political action committee co-managed by the California Chamber of Commerce dedicated more than two-thirds of its independent expenditure budget to supporting Republican candidates. Because the PAC does not coordinate with campaigns, it is not always clear which candidate is the intended beneficiary of each dollar—particularly in the case of opposition spending. But since 2014, it appears that Republican candidates have received less than half of the committee’s financial support in each election.

“It stands to reason,” said Marty Wilson, who oversees the PAC for the Chamber. “With the erosion of GOP officeholders, there are just more mouths to feed on the Democratic side now than there are on the Republican side.”

Business’s decision to back moderate Democrats rather than just Republicans in Sacramento is “very smart”—and the shift may be “the most important thing that’s happened in state politics over the last decade,” said Dan Schnur, a former Republican consultant who has left the party. As a result, “the biggest fights in Sacramento” are between moderate and progressive Democrats—with Republicans left on the sidelines.

After hosting former Trump advisor and nationalist flame-thrower Steve Bannon as keynote speaker in 2017, this state convention will feature former Trump press secretary Sean Spicer along with Wyoming GOP Rep. Liz Cheney, daughter of former vice president Dick Cheney.

In an op-ed after the 2018 election, Jim Brulte, a former state senator and outgoing state GOP chair, warned that given demographic trends, national Republicans should consider the Golden State GOP the “canary in the coal mine.”

But he did little to arrest, much less reverse, the party’s decline. Since taking the helm in 2013, party registration has fallen 5 percentage points.

Still he professes few regrets.

“Political parties, by and large, are nuts-and-bolts, ground-operated, data-analytical organizations,” he said, black cowboy boots propped on his office round table and chewing on a Red Vine. Over the last six years, he has helped dig the party out of debt, hired a team of number-crunchers and relocated the operation two blocks from the Capitol.

What he doesn’t do—and said he won’t be blamed for—is the party’s messaging.

“The Washington political leadership of our party is covered more in a week than every state party chair in the country is combined in the entire year,” he said. And no one can control the winds that blow with every tweet from D.C.

“It’s not defeatist,” said Brulte. “It’s realistic.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly implied that a Latino has not previously held the chairmanship of the California GOP.

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