Reporting from San Diego — Energized by the most diverse state ticket in their party's history, California Republicans are stepping up their outreach to Latinos and other minorities, hoping to repair their image and grow their ranks. But as they gathered for their semiannual convention over the weekend, GOP leaders and the party faithful clashed over immigration, illustrating, in an unexpected way, the party's key campaign theme: Party of the future versus party of the past.
Conservative activists had hoped to win support for a resolution endorsing both Arizona's controversial immigration law and Proposition 187, the 1994 effort to deny taxpayer-funded services to illegal immigrants. Looking to turn the page, party leaders, reportedly at the behest of Republican gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman, killed the measure in committee.
They feared a divisive debate would blunt the GOP's political momentum as Whitman and U.S. Senate candidate Carly Fiorina run competitive races against their Democratic opponents. Both candidates focused on the economy and praised the diversity of the ticket in their convention speeches. Neither mentioned immigration.
On Sunday, the party unveiled two websites to court minority and women voters. The GOP ticket includes a Latino, an African American and an Asian American. For the first time, two women hold the top slots, for governor and Senate.
"We are building a party for the long term that transcends this election cycle," said Ron Nehring, chairman of the California Republican Party. "If we're going to become a majority party in this state, we must do business a little bit differently."
Demographics demand it. Latinos, in particular, are a potent political force, representing 21% of the electorate, compared with 10% two decades ago. In 2008, they made up 18% of general-election voters. And although Latinos have been trending Democratic, Republicans see an opportunity to regain ground because many Latinos share some of the core values of the party, such as social conservatism, and are small-business owners.
According to the Public Policy Institute of California, 63% of likely Latino voters are Democrats, but more than a third, or 37%, see themselves as politically conservative.
If it hopes to grow, political observers said, the party must repair the damage it inflicted when Gov. Pete Wilson backed Prop.187.
"They don't vote against Republicans based on issues, they vote against the Republicans because they think the Republicans don't like them," said Allan Hoffenblum, a former GOP consultant and publisher of the nonpartisan California Target Book. "The problem that the Republican Party has in California is that Latinos — regardless of what their politics are — look at the Republican Party as anti-immigrant, anti-Latino because the shrill rhetoric that always comes from white male Republicans."
With about 10 weeks left until the election, Whitman and Fiorina are running aggressive outreach efforts.
"No one cares what you know until they know that you care," said Hector Barajas, Whitman's director of Latino outreach. "They won't know you care unless you show up. Republicans for a very long time haven't been showing up."
As part of a multimillion-dollar effort, Whitman opened an office in East Los Angeles this month and plans to announce the addition of a Santa Ana office Monday. Her campaign is advertising her opposition to the Arizona law on billboards in Latino communities and has run 14 separate Spanish-language TV and radio ads, including spots during the World Cup that cost as much as $500,000 apiece.
Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, the first Latino Republican to hold statewide office in more than a century, said the approach was a marked shift from the past.
"The notion of throwing a piñata party or a sticker that says Viva the candidate's last name or a taco fiesta and expecting the Hispanic vote to vote for the party does not work," he said. "All Hispanics want is an opportunity and some respect."
Republicans' absence from Latino communities has only reinforced the perception that the party is unfriendly, Barajas said.
While Fiorina has staked out more conservative ground than Whitman — backing the Arizona immigration law and refusing to take a position on Prop. 187 — her campaign has been building a network to reach Latino voters. Expanding the model Sen. John McCain used in his 2008 presidential run, the campaign plans to have a local presence by recruiting county and city chairs statewide.