As California Republicans convene over the weekend in Sacramento, Helen… (Steve Yeater, AP )
Reporting from Sacramento — — Republicans gathered at a boisterous state party convention this weekend brushed aside November's defeat and looked to economic issues and the state budget debate as rallying points for a party struggling to rebuild.
Though the party's registration has fallen to 30.9% of Californians and Republican gains nationally stopped at the state line, activists here contended that their agenda of cutting spending, curtailing labor's power and halting Gov. Jerry Brown's budget plan could prove appealing to voters driven by economic concerns.
"This tidal wave is not done," Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Atwater) told delegates Friday night. "We're going to be playing offense on the West Coast."
To cheers, outgoing state party Chairman Ron Nehring said he was proud of Republican lawmakers who had withstood pressure to support Brown's budget plan "from labor unions, liberal editorial boards and NPR, and everyone else on the left." He described the party as the force "stopping Jerry Brown from raising taxes."
But although party optimists see the Republican slide in California as part of a natural political cycle, others see grave challenges ahead as the state's demographic changes continue to favor Democrats. Some privately acknowledge that it may be a long time before the pendulum swings back in their direction.
Donors "think the party is on the brink of irrelevance," said Jeff Miller, the party's finance chairman, adding that many are tired of watching the GOP wrestle over its message. "They think the party focuses most of its time speaking to 30% of the state rather than the majority of the state."
Miller said donors were closely monitoring this weekend's contentious debate about how the party chooses its future candidates in the new top-two voting system to see if "we're going to continue to focus on eating our own, as opposed to focusing on electing more Republicans."
One challenge in completing that task is that there are few stars on the Republican bench for upcoming statewide races. Two of the party's highest-profile women — Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina, the former chief executives of EBay and Hewlett-Packard respectively — lost by double digits in November.
GOP consultant Marty Wilson, a Fiorina advisor last year, noted that Republicans emerged from bleak periods in the past when high-wattage stars like Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger helped recast the image of the party.
"Right now we don't have that voice," Wilson said. But he said that may increase the party's drive to "set about the hard work of creating an environment politically where we can elect a Republican again sometime in the next four years."
In the view of Wilson and many others, those efforts must include bringing Latinos into the party. Most alarming about the 2010 results, he said, was that Republicans drew a slim share of those voters at a time when they are the fastest-growing demographic in California.
"I don't think it's going to be mathematically possible to win in California unless we do better among Latinos than how Meg and Carly performed," he said.
As they have in the past, party leaders pledged this weekend to become a presence in minority neighborhoods — and not just in election years.
The reed of hope for Republicans is their fiscal approach; while voters have rejected statewide Republican candidates in recent elections, they have often sided with the GOP on taxes.
In 2009, voters overwhelmingly opposed Schwarzenegger's effort to extend tax increases. Those measures were similar to Brown's budget proposals, castigated by GOP leaders during the convention.
While rejecting Whitman and Fiorina, voters sided with the GOP on other parts of the 2010 ballot, such as opposing a new vehicle license fee to fund state parks and supporting a two-thirds legislative voting requirement for new fees.
"Jerry Brown has, by advocating a giant tax increase and pinning his political capital on that, really galvanized opposition to that plan," outgoing Chairman Nehring said in an interview. "We've seen a unified Republican response which is very strongly anti-tax."
Julie Soderlund, a GOP operative who was a top aide to Fiorina, said she was heartened by the fact that at least a segment of the Republican Party is beginning to discuss how the party can remain relevant, if still outnumbered by Democrats.
GOP legislators who are negotiating with Brown have not been publicly pilloried, as they would have been in years past. A conservative proposal to denounce lawmakers who vote for Brown's budget as "traitors" was withdrawn Saturday during a committee meeting.
And unlike at recent conventions, delegates have focused on issues viewed as party strengths among voters — taxes and the economy — rather than divisive topics such as immigration.
"This is the first convention in a long time, I think, where the forces who want to see this party become successful at the ballot again are standing up and having that debate with those who are more focused on the internal politics of this party," Soderlund said. "If we want to become an exclusive social club, we can continue down the path we're on."