In America's most populous state, the Republican Party could barely turn out 250 supporters for a banquet as an extremely glum California GOP Convention got underway tonight.
Golden State Republicans have plenty of reason to be despondent. The California Republican Party has been called "woefully weak" and "out of sync with most state voters." Republican legislators are barely hanging on to the one-third hold they still have in Sacramento, and the Democrats used a recent redistricting to make sure that the GOP loses even that. The Democratic leader of the California State Senate predicts the Democrats will take enough seats in this year's election to remove the only tool (a requirement that new taxes be subject to a supermajority vote) that the Republicans have to check left-wing legislation. Demographically the California Republican Party is positioned far from all the growth areas.
These structural defects are clear in the convention at a Hyatt in Burlingame. The population is almost entirely middle-aged and elderly, and there don't even seem to be a large number of youthful interns providing valet services to delegates. (The Ron Paul campaign – which the kids these days really "grok" is barely visible here.)
In interviews, none of these folks – including vendors, county leaders, delegates, would-be proxy delegates, and at least one irate member of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association – expressed optimism about the state party's future. Republican registration is down to 30.4 percent, and in comments earlier tonight, Tom del Beccarro, the new chairman of the state party, was unable to articulate a vision to get that figure up.
Del Beccarro took over the leadership of the California Republicans a little less than a year ago, when the party's abysmal condition had just been starkly demonstrated by 2010 congressional elections that saw the California GOP lose congressional seats in the midst of a nationwide Republican tidal wave powered by the Tea Party. The new chairman is facing a massive challenge in trying to reverse the party's decline.
When asked about that challenge and the likely prospect of an even stronger Democratic stranglehold after November, the chairman replied, "I don't think it's going to be a very good Democratic year. " Del Beccarro said he plans to "make this a statewide election on an idea that will coalesce voters." He cautioned against trying to run more than 170 separate races, and said only a "statewide election on a popular issue" will work.
But despite his emphasis on a "positive vision," Del Beccarro was short on big ideas. His statewide issues boil down to two: a spending cap and an attempt to restrict the power of "special interests" in upcoming ballot initiatives. He proposed getting more Republican voters through standard registration drive tactics and a "candidate toolbox." Asked about Republicans failure to thwart the Democrats when they gamed this year's redistricting, the state GOP chairman accused Democrats of misrepresenting themselves on local panels. Least promisingly of all, he took the Republicans' weakness as a selling point: "The Democrats have the Assembly, the Senate and the governorship," he said. "They can't point any fingers."
This is a common theme at the convention, where attendees lament the power of Democrats but don't seem hopeful about changing. Both tonight's dinner speakers – Rep. Darrell Issa (San Diego) and Rep. Kevin McCarthy (Bakersfield) – conceded that the Democrats are in full control of California.
"Don't blame us; we're powerless" doesn't seem like a strong campaign theme. Of the presidential candidates, only Newt Gingrich will be putting in an appearance at this weekend's confab. (Former hopefuls Herman Cain and Tim Pawlenty are also lurking somewhere.) It's striking to see such lack of enthusiasm even among the cadre. In the state of Ronald Reagan (whose image is everywhere here), the Republicans are near death.