With the June primary approaching, there is a fight underway for the identity of the California Republican Party.
“We need bold ideas,” President Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, told cheering GOP activists at the state party convention last fall. “Ideas like Donald Trump ran on, like build the wall, right? Protect our southern border. Reduce legal immigration.”
Six months later, and 25 miles north, Republican Assemblyman Chad Mayes led a smaller gathering to offer an opposite message.
“For us to be able to grow and expand, we have to move beyond this nationalist model,” said Mayes, elected in 2014 to represent parts of Riverside and San Bernardino counties. “We’ve got to start having conversations with folks of all different colors, creeds, sexual orientation. We have to go to folks who we don’t traditionally go to.”
Bannon gave the convention’s keynote address in a plush hotel ballroom room in Anaheim. Mayes organized his event at a youth center in Boyle Heights, a low-income, largely-Latino neighborhood just east of downtown Los Angeles. About 200 people sat on folding chairs laid out across the center’s basketball court, their backs to the tattered ropes of a boxing ring.
The contrasting scenes featured contrasting solutions to the same problem.
Behind Bannon, the convention’s backdrop read, “Electing Republicans in a Blue State” — a testament to how much ground the GOP has lost to Democrats in California over the past two decades.
While state party officials and activists have aligned themselves with President Trump’s brand of conservatism to tap the enthusiasm of their base, Mayes wants to broaden the party’s appeal leftward, by taking stances that run counter to Trump’s and Bannon’s. Advocates for the two approaches are at odds.
Some want to change the tune
“We are here because the soul of our great Republican Party that inspired each and every single one of us is worth fighting for,” said former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the keynote speaker in east L.A. at the first meeting of New Way California.
The last Republican elected to California’s top office has long called for the party to moderate its tone and reach out to the state’s diverse pool of voters, who have increasingly turned away from the GOP over the past two decades.
“Today we are the Titanic after it hit the iceberg, but before the last bit of the ship submerged,” Schwarzenegger said, drawing chuckles. “But unlike the Titanic, we might be able to save Leonardo DiCaprio before he goes under.”
Republicans have not won a statewide election since 2010 and their share of registered voters has fallen to about 25 percent. Only 16 percent of Latinos, the state’s largest racial or ethnic demographic, are registered Republicans, according to a 2017 study by the Public Policy Institute of California.
Mayes says appealing to those groups requires finding compromises with Democrats — rather than operating as an opposition party — and moving away from divisive social debates over illegal immigration, affirmative action and same-sex marriage, which have coincided with an erosion in support from Latino, Asian and LGBT voters over the past two decades.
“We tried for so long the yelling and screaming and telling people that don’t agree with us 100 percent of the time that they’re taking this country down the road to hell,” Mayes said. “And it seemed as Republicans were doing that that our numbers were getting worse and worse and worse.”
Instead, he wants to focus on poverty and the state’s record income inequality, making the case that taxes and regulations are to blame for California’s high cost of living.
That pitch found traction with Ruben Guerra, CEO of the Latin Business Association in Los Angeles and a Democrat who voted for Schwarzenegger.
“Some of these regulations and some of these laws, even I say c’mon guys, really? Wake up,” Guerra said. “I’ve been a Democrat all my life, but now I’m not loyal to that anymore.”
But Democratic and Republican party officials downplay the ability of New Way to catch on.
“I think this is kind of ridiculous,” said Eric Bauman, the chairman of the California Democratic Party. “Do I think it’s the right way to go if I was the chair of the Republican Party? Sure. But the people who are the activists in the Republican Party and the people who are the elected officials in the Republican Party, this is not where they are.”
Mayes and his party have already clashed heads over their competing approaches and platforms. Last year, when Mayes was the leader of Republicans in the state Assembly, he struck a deal with Gov. Jerry Brown. He and six other assemblymembers provided key votes to pass an extension of the climate change program, cap-and-trade.
Mayes describes it as a practical vote, which gave Republicans leverage to negotiate other tax cuts and credits in the deal, and allows businesses, manufacturers and oil companies to cut emissions in their preferred manner. Those industries all supported the deal.
He joined Brown for a celebratory press conference after the vote. That infuriated party activists, who argue the vote raised costs on consumers, especially fuel prices.
“I think the coup de grâce for Chad’s standing in the party was the open embrace of the governor at the press conference,” says Harmeet Dhillon, the Republican National Committeewoman from California. “And I think that really caused the rift in the party. He didn’t see it. He thought it was his own party to do with it what he wanted even though his view was a minority view.”
Dhillon led the successful effort to oust Mayes as Assembly Republican leader — he stepped down a month after the vote.
This election, Mayes faces two Republican primary challengers from his right, both challenging him due to the cap-and-trade vote. A local activist group, the Redlands Tea Party Patriots, has endorsed one of them, Andrew Kotyuk, a San Jacinto councilman, while urging the other, retired Palm Springs police chief Gary Jeandron, to drop out.
The local Republican Party committees in his district and the state party also voted for Mayes’s resignation as party leader.
Now, Dhillon describes the New Way group as “Democrats-lite,” who are diverging from the values of the party. “We have to hold onto the seats that we have, but with a certain branding,” Dhillon said.
Rather than compromise with Democrats, she says state lawmakers should heighten their opposition.
“I think the tone of all of our legislators in Sacramento is very measured and frankly too tame,” Dhillon said. “I would make their tone more strident if anything on what the Democrats are doing to destroy the state.”
GOP seats up for grabs
The old and New Way approaches will face off in the June primary elections. Democrats are targeting long-held Republican congressional seats in Orange County and northern San Diego County.
One race, in particular, will be demonstrative. Long-time Republican Congressman Darrell Issa, who funded the recall that led to Schwarzenegger’s election as governor and hounded President Obama as chairman of the House Oversight Committee, faces poor polling numbers and is retiring from a seat that was once solidly the GOP’s. The race to replace him includes several well-funded Democrats, including environmental attorney Mike Levin, former nonprofit CEO Sara Jacob and retired Marine colonel Doug Applegate, who lost to Issa in the last general election by a mere 1,600 votes.
On the Republican side, Board of Equalization member Diane Harkey has endorsements from the area’s prominent conservative, including Issa and the county Republican parties,while San Diego County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Kristin Gaspar is another prominent, conservative Republican who entered the race late.
Straddling the middle is Republican Assemblyman Rocky Chavez, one of New Way’s founding members.
It could be an early test of which kind of Republican remains viable with California voters, if any.
The California Dream series is a statewide media collaboration of CALmatters, KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the James Irvine Foundation.