Calif. Republicans gather, grapple with how to come back

BURLINGAME – It was the line that got the loudest applause in Saturday afternoon's gathering of Tea Party activists at the California Republican Party's winter convention.

The cheers came when it was suggested that the group's new motto be, "California: We're Not Lost, We're Just Occupied."

Call that a sign of both Republican angst in a state where Democrats dominate... and at least some of the angst over the state GOP's long running internal battles – a deep disagreement about both the reason for the party's problems, and what should be the fix to those problems.

It's an tired narrative, argued the new man at the top.

"Political parties don't agree on everything," says state GOP chairman Jim Brulte, who told reporters it's unfair to assume that Democrats in California are all happy and Republicans are all fighting.

Brulte's point has merit, though it's also true that Republicans have historically taken more shots at each other, a 'circular firing squad' as it's been joked through the years, than have Democrats. That, plus the party's growing gap in voter registration, means that GOP unity -- or unrest -- is almost always a topic of these twice-a-year conventions among delegates.

It's also part of the quiet debate, one growing ever so slightly louder, over which Republican gubernatorial hopeful should be the party's standard bearer against Gov. Jerry Brown.

For the Tea Party faithful, like caucus organizer Randall Jordan, it's a lean towards "our friend Tim," San Bernardino County assemblyman Tim Donnelly. Donnelly, who tweeted his support from the party's conservative factions, stands in contrast to first-time candidate Neel Kashkari who told supporters that his mission is to rebuild the state GOP into a political organization much bigger than its traditional base.

"The biggest tent you've ever seen in your life," is how Kashkari described his hopes in an afternoon speech to the Log Cabin Republicans, a group of gay GOP activists.

Both men, along with Laguna Hills mayor Andrew Blount, have just 80 days left to find enough votes to emerge on June 3 as the other name beside Brown's on the 'top two' November ballot.

For Kashkari, the goal may be simply to avoid making too many waves too soon.

The former Bush treasury official has hedged when asked to provide specific details on his "jobs and education" agenda. On Saturday, he was drawn into a somewhat more detailed discussion by reporters on one issue: oil drilling. Ultimately, the Orange County candidate said that he's "open" to the idea of new offshore oil drilling.

That, though, could be a tough sell; a July 2013 statewide public poll found 54 percent of those surveyed oppose new offshore exploration.

The real challenge for the state Republican party, though, may be how high… or how low… to set electoral expectations. GOP chair Brulte has said his priorities for 2014 don't extend beyond winning a few legislative and congressional seats and balancing the state party's bleeding checkbook. That's a targeted approach, one that he concedes may take time to rival the successes of Democrats in California.

"We know they have more resources," said Brulte. "We think we have more heart."


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