When Steve Bannon took his self-described "civil war" against the political establishment to the California Republican Party convention Friday night, he was met with raucous cheers.
"The Republican establishment is finally getting the joke: They’re gonna have to step it up," Bannon told the crowd of several hundred party activists.
The Breitbart executive chairman and former top strategist for President Trump slammed former President George W. Bush. He compared California’s new “sanctuary state” law to South Carolina refusing to enforce federal tariffs before the confederacy seceded. And he gave a pep talk to Republicans in a state with zero statewide office holders, no power in the Legislature, and just 26 percent of registered voters.
"It looks like, now, it’s impossible to do anything in California. Right? Demographics against you, the media’s against you, the culture’s against you," Bannon said. "It couldn’t be farther from the truth. You’ve got everything you need to win. You’ve got authentic people. You’ve got big ideas. And you have a grassroots – you have the muscle.”
The California Republican Party is lost in an identity crisis. The divide pits Bannon's nationalistic wing against the party's business-friendly establishment. That split was on display at the state GOP’s convention this weekend, and Bannon’s message resonated with many attendees.
"We are in a war right now with the establishment," said Judi Neal of San Dimas, who's president of a suburban Los Angeles County Republican club.
"Those of us that are caught somewhere in the middle are tired of being ignored, tired of being placed on the back burner, while the elites decide what’s going to be best for you, rather than you deciding what’s going to be best," Neal said. "So yeah – I’m ready for a fight!”
But for other Republicans, Bannon inspires deep unease – especially in a state Trump lost last year by 4 million votes.
Two hours east, away from the fanfare, Chad Mayes has just finished up lunch in his hometown, the small desert community of Yucca Valley.
Mayes used to be a regular at state party conventions. But he resigned as Assembly Republican Leader earlier this year amid criticism for negotiating a cap-and-trade deal with Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown.
So instead of hobnobbing and fundraising this weekend, “I’m gonna go fishing – sea fishing.”
Mayes was planning to skip the convention even before Steve Bannon was booked. But he said he was shocked, and disappointed, that the California Republican Party chose to invite him.
"You don’t build a party by screaming and yelling and telling people that you’re taking the country to hell," Mayes told Capital Public Radio after a lunch at the Yucca Valley Applebee's. "You tell people what your vision is, what your ideas are. You sit and you listen. You try to reason with them. And then you begin over time building a level of trust. And when you can build that level of trust, then you begin to win.”
And if Bannon is waging “civil war” upon the establishment, some Republicans are fighting back. Sacramento-based GOP strategist Mike Madrid flew down to the convention just to speak out against Bannon.
"As Reagan said, it’s a time for choosing," Madrid said. "So that’s why I’m here, that’s why I’m standing up, and that’s why I’m being vocal about this problem inflicting the party."
Then there are the Republicans who feel neither Bannon’s economic nationalism nor Mayes’s deal-cutting with Democrats offers the strongest path forward for the state GOP.
While more than a dozen people at the convention expressed those feelings privately to Capital Public Radio – none would say so on the record.
There are no prominent Republicans challenging Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein’s re-election bid next year. And of the two Republicans running for governor, neither businessman John Cox nor Assemblyman Travis Allen has gained much traction yet.
That leaves the California Republican Party still searching for a standard-bearer – a year before the 2018 midterms.