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California GOP Ponders Path Forward In Trump Era

Ben Adler / Capital Public Radio

Tim Clark, who ran President Trump's primary campaign in California and then led his southwest regional effort in the general election, speaks to a Trump delegation reunion at the California GOP convention in Sacramento on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2017.

Ben Adler / Capital Public Radio

Elvira Moreno knows she doesn’t look like a typical Republican.

“It’s not just white, not just rich people that are Republicans,“ Moreno says, “because I’m by far not rich – and not white!”

Moreno, who was waiting in the check-in line Friday afternoon at the California Republican Party convention in Sacramento, is a former Democrat who’s active in four Orange County grassroots groups. She's also started an outreach coalition she calls “Spread the Red.”

“Not only to my Hispanic community, which was a priority, but the black community, the Jewish community, the majority of people that are Democrats,“ Moreno says. “Because I honestly believe that they just don’t know and aren’t being informed, because of the lack of communication by the party.”

For California Republicans, it is both the best of times and the worst of times: dominance of the federal government, yet irrelevance at the state Capitol.

The GOP now hopes to transfer the grassroots enthusiasm spurred by the victory of President Trump to state races in next year’s gubernatorial election.

But it will take Moreno – and thousands like her – to make Republicans relevant again in California, where Democrats hold all statewide offices and supermajorities in both chambers of the Legislature.

GOP registration has fallen 12 points in the last 20 years – it’s now down to just 26 percent. California Republican Party chairman Jim Brulte says that decline parallels the drop in the state’s white population.

“Which,“ Brulte says, “is why I say Republicans have to do a better job of going into every neighborhood and articulating our point of view, and looking for people who agree with us, and elevating them, and making them messengers for our point of view.”

Brulte convened his party at a pivotal moment: Jerry Brown is termed out of the governor’s mansion next year, and Democrats are facing a packed – and likely bitter – primary. But the GOP is still searching for a plausible gubernatorial candidate.

Former Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin isn’t running, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer says he isn’t either, and efforts to woo Silicon Valley venture capitalist Peter Thiel failed too.

Brulte insists the party will find someone strong. Yet even then, the odds are long.

“Do I think a Republican can win in 2018 for governor? I think it’s highly unlikely,” says GOP political consultant Beth Miller. “There is enormous support amongst the rank and file in the party for Donald Trump. But translating that into electoral success in 2018 – there’s a lot of distance between the two.”

That effort started Saturday at the convention with a California Trump delegation reunion.

“We’ve done our job nationally,“ Trump campaign California state director Tim Clark told the crowd. “And now we have to focus on 2018 in our state, and then get ready for 2020.”

It was a big celebration – with lots of anticipation about what’s next. Corrin Rankin of Redwood City led the California chapter of African Americans for Trump. She says this momentum can make a difference in California next year.

“I don’t think it will be a flipping of the switch, but I don’t think it will be a long haul,“ Rankin says. “I think it’s just going to be a gradual turn. People will slowly start to see what’s going on in our Capitol and in our state, and realize a lot of the mistakes that have been made.”

The Trump campaign says its 300,000 California volunteers and donors made 1.6 million calls to swing states last fall. Now, it’s working to move that activism into the California GOP’s precinct operation.

To truly be competitive statewide, Republicans will have to pick up millions more votes than they got last November. And they’ll actually need a candidate for governor.

Ben Adler

Capitol Bureau Chief

Capitol Bureau Chief Ben Adler first became a public radio listener in the car on his way to preschool – though not necessarily by choice. Now, he leads Capital Public Radio’s state Capitol coverage, which airs on NPR stations across California.  Read Full Bio 

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