SACRAMENTO — California Republicans gathered in the state capital Saturday to assess the state of their party and consider how to recapture voters amid deep losses last November and a widening disconnect with nearly all segments of the state’s electorate.
Republican strategist Karl Rove said the party’s losses give the GOP an opportunity to re-evaluate everything from the ground up. Republicans account for less than 30 percent of the state’s voters, hold less than a third of state legislative seats and lost ground in the state’s congressional delegation last fall.
Rove, who has launched his own national effort to broaden the party’s base, implored delegates to field more diverse candidates and reach out to non-white and women voters.
“It’s not just the tactical things of a better turnout operation … we’ve got a strategic issue,” Rove told a ballroom full of delegates and party activists at a downtown hotel. “We have great principles, but we sometimes talk about those principles in a way that makes it sound like it’s 1968, 1980 or 2000.”
“Go take the values we have and go sell them as hard as you can,” he said.
To be successful in the long run, Republicans will need to reach a large segment of California voters who have largely turned away from the GOP. That includes younger voters and Latinos, who are the fastest-growing segment of the electorate and are expected to surpass whites in California next year.
Ashley Neumann, 43, a delegate from the Sierra foothill town of Grass Valley, said she is looking for answers from the party about its failure to select good candidates and deliver a cohesive message. Neumann, who opposes abortion rights, said she counts that issue among her highest priorities but does not like the way Republicans have discussed it.
“I just don’t trust any of the candidates that I’ve seen to be able to deliver a logic, science-based, pro-life message. So if they can’t deliver it, please shut up,” Neumann said.
There are no plans to revamp the party platform, which espouses opposition to gay marriage, abortion and universal health care, and the roster of speakers for the weekend reads like a list of establishment Republicans.
The party faithful are banking on former Senate Minority Leader Jim Brulte to restore their party’s luster and its bank account, but there are still wide divisions among members about whether the party needs a total overhaul or just a makeover.
The party’s outgoing chairman, Tom Del Beccaro, acknowledged the split on some of the most contentious issues, such as gay marriage.
A roster of prominent Republicans this week submitted a legal brief to the U.S. Supreme Court voicing support for same-sex unions. The signers included Hewlett-Packard Chief Executive Meg Whitman, who opposed gay marriage as the party’s nominee for governor in 2010.
“The reality is that you’re going to find that the Republican Party is going to have members on all sides of this issue on this for years to come,” Del Beccaro said Saturday.
He said he still supports Proposition 8, the 2008 voter-approved initiative that banned gay marriage in California. Nearly 60 percent of California voters support gay marriage, 10 percentage points higher than when the initiative passed, according to a Field Poll released earlier this week.
On Friday, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield called the November election a “wake-up call to the California GOP” and urged fellow Republicans to restructure the party’s operations to better compete with Democrats’ more sophisticated approach.
He urged Republicans to deliver a message of optimism and “embrace a little bit of our libertarianism.”
Warren Kusumoto, the 53-year-old mayor of Los Alamitos, said he is optimistic about the party’s future despite its missteps.
“Who would not want less government, less taxes and growth? Those are the things the party can connect on,” rather than social issues, he said. “I’m not saying let’s ignore all that, but let’s focus on the core.”
Fewer than 30 percent of California voters are registered Republican, continuing a 20-year decline. The party has lost support with Latino voters since 1994, when Gov. Pete Wilson championed Proposition 187.
That ballot initiative prohibited illegal immigrants from using public health care programs, education and a variety of social services. The law was later overturned by the courts but has left lingering resentment among Latinos.
The weekend gathering offers an opportunity for internal party tensions to play out, although even the most conservative Republicans say they support Brulte’s election.
Celeste Greig, president of the California Republican Assembly, a conservative faction within the party, said she backs Brulte and knows he won’t tinker with the party platform.
“He knows that it will not work. He knows that the passion and commitment in the grassroots is within the conservative movement,” Greig said of Brulte. “I don’t foresee him caving in to pressure from the minority moderate wing of the party.”
Greig caused a stir during the convention’s first day for comments related to abortion and rape. She told a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News that pregnancy after rape was rare because of the trauma to a woman’s body, comments that were similar to ones made last year by failed Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin.
Steve Frank, a conservative activist and blogger from Simi Valley, said he is frustrated that party leaders and top-of-the-ticket candidates have weakened the Republican brand. He included in that group former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who alienated many in his party by supporting some tax increases and compromising with Democrats.
“Why should conservative Republicans, people who consider themselves Republicans, join with the Republican Party when the Republican Party is branded by Schwarzenegger and (Meg) Whitman and Charles Munger?” Frank said.
Brulte, of Rancho Cucamonga, said his priorities are getting the party out of debt and fixing its organizational problems before taking on its messaging. He said the party needs to recruit, train and provide whatever technical help it can afford to boost Republican candidates running at all levels of office.