Politico

In deep blue California, Trump electrifies GOP

Written by Lisa

SACRAMENTO — California’s withered Republican Party finally found reason for cheer.

In less than six weeks, President Donald Trump had done more to unsettle Democrats in the land of Jerry Brown and Berkeley than Republicans managed for years, calling the nation’s most populous state “out of control” and panicking its ruling party on issues ranging from climate change to health care and immigration.

As the California GOP tipped cocktails at its spring convention over the weekend, it held out hope that Trump might reinvigorate its ranks.

“I don’t know about you,” the state party chairman, Jim Brulte, told delegates in a hotel ballroom across from the state Capitol. “But Donald Trump’s just rockin’ my socks.”

Yet while the rank-and-file swooned, posing next to cardboard cutouts of Trump and reminiscing about days of Republican prominence in California, many members of the party’s political and donor classes fretted about how closely they should hew to a president despised in their home state.

Overshadowing the opening night of the convention, Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, a prominent supporter of Trump, called on HBO’s “Real Time” for a special prosecutor to oversee an investigation into Trump associates’ contacts with Russia.

Issa, a top target of Democrats in 2018, represents a district that Hillary Clinton carried in November, and he only narrowly won re-election. He praised Trump at a convention luncheon Saturday but told reporters after, “Donald Trump is not everybody’s Republican. He’s not everybody’s conservative. But he is our president, our president for everybody, and I will agree with him or disagree with him, but I’ll try to make him a success.”

Issa’s break with Trump on Russia was reflective of Trump’s deep unpopularity in California, where his lopsided loss to Clinton contributed significantly to his loss of the popular vote nationwide. A nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California poll this month put his job approval rating in the state at an anemic 30 percent.

Still, with Democrats in Sacramento rushing forward with legislation to expand protections for undocumented immigrants and to gird against Trump on climate change, Republicans sense an opening. In speeches, toasts and TV interviews at the Hyatt Regency Sacramento, they cast Democrats as inattentive to the state budget, dilapidated infrastructure and a poverty rate that is highest in the nation when adjusted for the cost of living.

“You break it, you own it,” Brulte said, presaging 2018 elections in which he said Democrats are “going to have to defend what I think is a mess they’ve made here in California.”

At the state Capitol, where Democrats hold every statewide office and super-majorities in both houses of the legislature, Trump’s antagonistic posture toward California could actually improve Republicans’ hand. Many Republican lawmakers have relationships with Trump’s allies in Congress, including House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

“They might be able to leverage their relationship with him on things like a transportation deal,’’ said Matt Shupe, a California-based Republican consultant. “Right now, there’s no reason for Democrats to talk to us…but [House Republicans] might be about to say, “We’ll get Trump to bring in funding … if you do X. It will be interesting to see how that plays out.”

With Trump in the White House, the party put on a unified display of support. Issa and Rep. Devin Nunes, two of Trump’s most vocal proponents, addressed delegates Saturday, while activists at late-night receptions feted Trump with glow sticks and poolside cigars.

Dennis Revell, a son-in-law of Ronald Reagan, said that “in this election process, people finally found their voice,” and a dinner full of delegates applauded when video of California placing its primary votes for Trump into nomination last year played on a big screen.

“Isn’t it nice to win?” Nunes asked delegates.

Earlier Saturday, Brulte hosted a reunion for Republicans who served as delegates for Trump at the Republican National Convention. Williamson “Bill” Evers, who advised Trump on education issues during the transition, and Tim Clark, Trump’s California political director during the campaign, were greeted warmly as they strode through the convention halls.

“It’s a whole new party, and it’s his party,’’ said Anna Bryson, a Bay Area Republican consultant and Evers’ wife. “He’s brought it all back to Ground Zero.’’

Bryson said she was “ecstatic” watching video of Trump’s speech on Friday at the Conservative Political Action Conference, where Republicans cheered Trump on with repeated standing ovations. The scene confirmed for Bryson that “he has re-created the party in his image, and the young people are on board – and they are the engine that will lead us into the next century.”

The moribund party is in desperate need of a revival. The state that sent Reagan and Richard Nixon to the White House has not gone for a Republican candidate for president since George H.W. Bush in 1988, and Republican registration has dropped to about 26 percent statewide.

Even amid the celebration of Trump’s election came signs of ongoing difficulties for the California GOP. Party activists were expected Sunday to take up a resolution supporting Trump’s policies on immigration, an issue that has alienated California’s growing number of Latino voters and contributed to the state party’s decline. While popular with the party’s conservative base, Trump’s hard line on immigration had many Republicans steering questions about the issue elsewhere.

“Forget about the federal government,” said Mario Guerra, a member of the state party board of directors who declined last year to serve as a delegate to the Republican National Convention for Trump after Latino activists objected.

While expressing support for the president, he said, “We have our own issues … Every single pothole in the state of California belongs to the Democrats.”

For Trump’s most strident supporters, the convention served as a vindication. Former state Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, a conservative Republican who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2014, said Trump is “kicking ass and taking names.”

“He’s been in office for weeks here, and he’s already terrified the Democrats who have a supermajority here,” said Donnelly, who is mulling a second run for governor.

Donnelly doubted, however, whether the California Republican Party could take advantage of the moment.

“Someone told me the GOP in California was having an existential crisis — and that is a lie,’’ he said. “To have an existential crisis, you have to exist.”

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