The GOP Sees Its Future in California

PHOTO: Republican strategist Karl Rove gestures while at a luncheon at the California Republican Party convention, in Sacramento, Calif., Saturday, March 2, 2013.AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli
Republican strategist Karl Rove gestures while at a luncheon at the California Republican Party convention, in Sacramento, Calif., Saturday, March 2, 2013. Rove told California Republicans to "get off the mat", and to find candidates to reflect the party's diversity.

Republicans have been doing a lot of soul searching lately about the Grand Old Party and its future. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman labeled the national party's biggest challenge an existential one, since the GOP is struggling with its identity and no longer seems to know where its headed.

But in California, the problems of the state party may literally be existential, in that—if trends continue—the party could all but disappear. Since California is often a bellwether for the nation, the party's decline there is of even greater concern.

California is essentially a one-party state following the Democrats' gains in November, in which they achieved a super majority in the state legislature. Some credit this new monopoly to the rising numbers of Hispanic and Asians, who voted overwhelmingly Democratic last year.

But the state GOP has really been in decline for the better part of two decades, as shifting demographics in the state have left the right seemingly out of touch with the average Californian. Democratic political consultant David Townsend told the Los Angeles Times that the Republican Party "can't come back in California" because it's "too white, too right and too uptight."

Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton also explained the different ways the party stands in sharp contrast with the general population. The California GOP is 82 percent white. Meanwhile, Hispanics are set to surpass whites as the largest ethnic group this year, and will only continue to grow. Only 27 percent of Republicans support granting driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants, whereas 52 percent of the overall population supports it, according to Field Poll.

According to Skelton, the GOP also stands "far to the right of the rest of California in its opposition of gun control, same-sex marriage, legalizing marijuana and taking action against global warming."

In response, some in the Republican Party have been calling for better outreach to Latinos and other demographics, and for greater efforts to include them into the party and its priorities. To political analyst Dan Schnur, it makes sense.

"Addressing the immigration issue in a more realistic way is an important first step in an effort to attract support from these communities," said Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. "But it's only a first step. There's ample opportunity for the Republican Party to come back in California, but it's going to require a dramatically different approach than they've displayed in the most recent election cycles."

By that, Schnur doesn't mean abandoning principles, but--as Ronald Reagan did in the '80s or Bill Clinton did with the Democratic Party in the '90s--it means building on and updating core principles to reflect today's electorate.

"Now's the time to act and not just to talk about it," said Ruben Barrales, president of GROW Elect, a political action committee that supports and promotes Latino leadership in the California Republican Party. "We have to take some action and really include Latinos in a very aggressive way."

For Barrales, a former White House aid under President George W. Bush and CEO of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce, inclusion is the key word.

"I tell people that I'm done with outreach. That's really not going to cut it," he said. "[Latinos] need to see the Republican Party is a vehicle to create empowerment and opportunity for Latinos."

To do that, the party "needs to show its heart," said Barrales. It needs to show that its policies will improve Latinos' lives in basic ways, including public safety, education and immigration.

Bringing Latinos to the table would help address the challenges facing the party. And while it may take years to see a healthy GOP in California, Barrales eagerly awaits the day it finally comes to fruition.

"If we're successful, we'll have a stronger Latino community, and we'll have two political parties that truly compete for the Latino vote. I think that's good for the Latino community."