Sen. Jim Brulte, left, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger share a laugh after… (Los Angeles Times )
SACRAMENTO — Desperate to return to relevance, the battered California Republican Party is looking for salvation in a shrewd dealmaker and prolific fundraiser once known for advancing his party's interests in a Capitol dominated by Democrats.
Jim Brulte, a former Senate and Assembly minority leader forced from the Legislature by term limits in 2004, is the odds-on favorite to be chosen state GOP leader at the party's convention here next month.
His plans for a rebirth focus, at the moment, on shoring up the basics: the fundraising operation, get-out-the-vote apparatus, data analysis capabilities and recruitment efforts. All have been ailing, leaving the GOP bent with debt and precipitating its increasingly poor performance at the polls.
"I want to be the most boring Republican Party chair in history," Brulte, who represented parts of the Inland Empire, said in an interview. "That means being in the trenches, doing the nuts and bolts. It's not very glamorous, and it's not very exciting, but it's unbelievably important."
The California Republican Party has not been so weak in decades. With statewide registration below 30% (Democrats have 43.7%), it went into free fall last November, losing ground in state legislative and congressional contests.
The GOP ceded coveted supermajorities to Democrats in both the Senate and Assembly, shutting themselves out of deal-making in the Capitol. And no Republicans were elected to statewide posts in 2010, when those offices were last open.
Young people, Latinos and other minorities who make up an increasing share of the electorate have tended not to be drawn to the party. Opinion polls show that those voters support a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants and higher taxes to pay for certain government services. But the ideologues who control the party have resisted both.
How far Brulte would go in that direction is unclear. Though he earned a reputation as a Capitol deal-maker who could work across party lines, his unyielding refusal of tax hikes a decade ago helped paralyze the governorship of Gray Davis, a Democrat, amid a severe budget crisis. Davis was eventually recalled.
But Brulte is adept at defusing internal conflict and at delivering the Republican message palatably in a heavily Democratic state — without hurting his credentials as a conservative stalwart. Business leaders, many of whom are frustrated by the party's refusal to make policy compromises and have stopped donating money, see in him a potentially stabilizing force who could bring discipline and order to a party in disarray.
"He's earned the trust and the support of the major donors in the past," said Rob Lapsley, president of the California Business Roundtable. "They are interested in seeing a new plan for a new time."
Brulte may also be able to enlist the help of national party leaders who had given up on the state GOP in recent years. When state Republicans gather next month, strategist Karl Rove, who as an advisor to President George W. Bush sought Brulte's counsel on California, will be on hand to rally the faithful and support his long-time ally.
Brulte has called the Republicans' long slide in California the result of "political malpractice" — self-inflicted wounds that have pushed the party's numbers to a historic low in the Legislature.
"It's not unusual for a political party to lose elections they're supposed to lose," he said. "But the Republican Party in the last election lost some elections they should have won."
He points to Republican Ron Smith's 145-vote loss to Democrat Steve Fox in an Antelope Valley Assembly seat last fall, which the GOP assumed it would win easily.
"Ron Smith was busy hiring staff and forgot about campaigning," Brulte said, showing some of the candor he was known for in the Capitol. "Those kinds of things can't happen." Smith did not respond to requests for comment.
A savvy and affable spokesman for his party while in the Legislature, Brulte has since earned his living as a high-priced consultant for California Strategies. The Sacramento-based firm counts former lawmakers and senior political staff among its partners, and Brulte said he plans to stay with the company if he wins the chairman post.
Many Republicans hope Brulte, considered one of the party's most capable tacticians, can help them win back lost seats. They see him as someone who can mute the influence of hyper-conservative activists who have often demanded ideological purity at the expense of ballot-box success.
"The rise of those … influences on the party coincided with the exit of Jim Brulte" from elective office, said GOP strategist Mike Madrid.
Brulte said it would take the better part of a decade to restore the party to health. Madrid agreed that even for Brulte, the challenges are huge, particularly the party's relationship with Latinos, young voters and the less affluent.
"It's ironic that the party is looking to a white, middle-aged political veteran to help us," Madrid said.
Still, he allowed, "there's nobody better for the job than Jim Brulte."