Almost every California Republican today realizes the party faces a serious dilemma upon whose resolution hinges the very life of the GOP in America’s largest state.
If the state party changes its long-held stances on things like illegal immigration (absolutely no form of amnesty or path to citizenship), gun control (against), gay marriage (against) and new taxes (none whatsoever), it will be deserting basic, long-held positions. But if it doesn’t make some changes, it will keep on losing because those stances do not square with the current preferences of most Californians.
Losses have been heavy to date: Democrats now have supermajorities of more than two-thirds in both houses of the Legislature, dominate the state’s congressional delegation by a 38-15 count and hold every statewide office, including the two U.S. Senate seats.
Into this bleak situation steps Jim Brulte, a former longtime Republican legislator from San Bernardino County who at last notice was unopposed in his quest to become party chairman during the GOP’s state convention in early March.
Rather than confront the crucial Republican conundrum, Brulte insists he will deal mostly with “nuts and bolts” as chairman, leaving political positioning to the party’s dwindling cadre of elected officials and its candidates.
“I’m not going to talk issues,” he declared in an interview. “I want to focus on rebuilding the party from the grass roots up.”
Brulte listed three areas as his top priorities: renewing Republican fundraising operations, recruiting many more grass-roots volunteers than the party recently has and “rebuilding the party’s bench” by recruiting candidates for legislative and local races who have a chance to win because they “look like, sound like and share the values of the people in their neighborhoods.”
“The neighborhoods are changing, and we need to change, too,” he conceded.
He didn’t go so far as to say he would push the GOP to change any longstanding platform planks or even recommend anything to bring the party more in line with what polls and recent votes show most Californians believe today.
“To the extent you want to discuss issues,” he repeated, “I will refer you to our members of the Legislature and Congress and our candidates.”
Brulte says his projected rebuild has immediate potential for bettering the GOP’s electoral fortunes with or without changes on any issues.
“We lost three or four seats where the outcome really hinged on nuts and bolts,” he said, citing several legislative races decided by fewer than 2,000 votes each.
Election returns reveal that the GOP won almost as many very tight races as it lost, one example being the 1,018-vote margin by which Republican Assemblyman Mike Morrell beat Democrat Russ Warner in a far-flung San Bernardino County district.
The same returns show Democrats won by wide margins in most races, indicating that merely fixing nuts and bolts won’t bring Republicans near parity anytime soon.
Brulte is plainly correct that the party needs less posturing and more hard work. One change he says he’ll make right away is to stop sending out ideology-driven press releases anytime almost anything happens, as the past two GOP state chairman have done.
“You resort to press releases when you don’t have much else,” Brulte said. “We will rebuild a bench of potential candidates by recruiting well and winning city council, school board and local district elections all over California. The party has not had an active recruiting campaign in some large areas of the state. The (San Francisco) Bay area is one. Even in heavily Democratic regions, there are areas within those regions where we could do well. We can attract people who favor small government and oppose a permanent welfare state.”
That’s as close as Brulte comes to discussing actual policy. “I will be the most boring chairman the party has had in a long time,” he said. “I’m not going to do talk radio or pontificate on issues. I want to do the hard work.”
He guesses bringing the GOP at least close to even with Democrats will take about six years.
It remains to be seen how long Brulte can ignore issues and focus on the strictly practical parts of party-building. As even he implies, unless Republicans move themselves more into line with public sentiment on major issues, it won’t matter how much money the party raises or how many volunteers and candidates it recruits.
In short, no matter how reluctant Brulte and other GOP leaders may be, they will have to address their party’s big dilemma or risk becoming perpetual losers.
Thomas Elias is a California author. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.