California GOP grapples with low-profile candidates, tight cashflow

Buttons showing former president Ronald Reagan were on display at the California Republican Party Convention on September 16, 2011.
Buttons showing former president Ronald Reagan were on display at the California Republican Party Convention on September 16, 2011.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Elizabeth Emken practically pleaded for support at this weekend’s California Republican Party convention in the Burbank Marriott Hotel.

“We have built this campaign with toothpicks and kite string,” Emken told a lunch crowd of several hundred. “I need your help.”

It’s hard for Republicans to muster enthusiasm for their U.S. Senate candidate, who faces four-term Democratic incumbent Diane Feinstein in November. Autism activist Emken has never run for statewide office and has no name recognition. She argues it’s an advantage that she and her husband pay a mortgage and raise three kids on their own.

“You’ve seen a lot of millionaires and billionaires and CEOs and movie stars up here,” she said, referring to past GOP candidates like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Meg Whitman. “I’m different.”

Emken’s candidacy is emblematic of the current woes facing the California Republican Party. It lacks high profile candidates and the party is tight on cash. Republicans hold no statewide office, are a minority in the legislature and although the party is strong in some areas (like the Central Valley) just 30 percent of Golden State voters are registered with the party — compared to 43 percent for Democrats.

At this weekend’s convention, the party faithful were most excited about Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan — the vice presidential choice of presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. He appeals to their fiscal conservatism.

Tackling Latino voters

The party still faces huge challenges with the state’s fastest growing group of voters: only 18 percent of Latinos are registered as Republicans.

“They’ve got to get away from the nativism,” said Joel Kotkin, who was invited to speak at the weekend GOP conclave. Kotkin teaches urban development at Chapman University and wrote “The New Geography.”

Kotkin said Republicans in California need to focus on jobs, and distance themselves from anti-immigrant rhetoric.

“What works in South Carolina doesn’t work in California,” he said.

Plenty of Republicans agree, knowing that many Latino voters are sympathetic to undocumented immigrants.

“I think we need to reach out to people who may not be here legally and help them find a path to legal citizenship,” said Leonard Lanzi of Los Angeles. “Why not? They’re here already. They’re being productive in our society.”

At one point during the convention, a high school chemistry teacher from Panorama City stood up and described how many of his students are the children of undocumented immigrants. Jay Stern, a Republican running in the 46th Assembly District, said the party should support citizenship for these young people who are undocumented by no fault of their own.

“The answer is no,” said Congressman Dana Rohrabacher of Orange County, espousing the party line that illegal immigrants should be deported. Rohrabacher said any amnesty encourages more illegal immigration.

Shawn Steel, who represents California on the Republican National Committee, challenged the idea that many Latinos reject the party because of its stance on immigration. Steel blamed Latinos' attitude toward government, and argued that it contradicts the Republican view.

“What we have is a large percentage of first generation Latinos, most of whom are hardworking,” Steel said, “but they come from a culture of complete government dependence.”

That kind of talk can get the party into trouble with Latinos, especially since many immigrants come from poor countries with no government social safety net.

"This is going to be a long process," said California Republican Party Chairman Tom Del Beccaro, when asked about changing the party's immigration message.