ANAHEIM, Calif. — His former chief strategist pillories fellow Republicans they once loved. His dreadful poll numbers here might drag their House incumbents down next year.
But with little else to cheer in this heavily Democratic state, the California Republican Party is falling hard for Donald Trump.
Rallying their dwindling ranks at the party’s fall convention over the weekend, Steve Bannon drew applause when he called former President George W. Bush a “piece of work” and said “there has not been a more destructive presidency than George Bush’s.” As for another Republican who once led the party ticket, Sen. John McCain, when Bannon mentioned his name at a dinner banquet here, someone in the audience yelled, “Hang him!”
Both Bush and McCain won more votes in California than Trump did last year. And the last Republican presidential candidate to carry the state was Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, in 1988. It was California’s own Ronald Reagan who popularized what he called the “Eleventh Commandment,” which declared, “Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican.”
But none of that seems to matter anymore. California GOP activists now celebrate a president who violates that commandment on a daily basis.
Following Bannon’s remarks, many convention-goers said the criticism of Bush was unwarranted — even regrettable. But it is also tolerated. And in an era of red-on-red recriminations, party leaders embrace the disorder that Trump has wrought.
“What we’ve been doing in California hasn’t been working,” said California’s Republican National Committeewoman, Harmeet Dhillon. “Disruption can be helpful. There is an appetite for that kind of in-your-face approach.”
Trump drew disaffected voters to the polls last year, Dhillon said. “Does some of the rhetoric from some of our national leaders alienate some potential voters? Probably. What’s the net? I don’t know.”
State party leaders’ decision to showcase Trump and Bannon — the most fire-breathing expression of his administration – startled many members of the GOP’s professional and political classes, who fear Trump could hurt Republicans in competitive House races and further damage the party’s long-term effort to rebuild in a state he lost by a landslide. The GOP’s share of statewide registration now languishes below 26 percent, in large part because of the party’s inability to attract young voters and Latinos.
Sean Walsh, a Republican strategist who worked in former GOP Gov. Pete Wilson’s administration, called the decision to highlight Bannon “a terrible thing.” And Mike Madrid, a former political director of the state party, said he had “no idea” why California Republican Party Jim Brulte would invite him to entertain “this peculiar cast of characters who somehow revel in this stuff.”
Channeling Bush’s denunciation of Trumpism last week, Madrid said, “This is not conservatism … It’s an abhorrent devolution” of the party’s base.
“This emergent, dysfunctional wing of the party that used to kind of be on the fringes is now becoming more mainstream as the party shrinks,” said Madrid, a political consultant who specializes in Latino politics in California. “The base loves this guy. Well, you know what? That doesn’t make it right. It means there’s something wrong with our base. And leadership requires leading us out of this dysfunction … Nobody believes that this is a recipe to grow the party. That’s absurd.”
Mario Guerra, a member of the state party board of directors who declined to serve as a delegate for Trump to the Republican National Convention after Latino activists objected, said Saturday that he was “disappointed by some of the reactions” from convention-goers to Bush and McCain.
“I think it’s wrong for us to take on other Republicans in that kind of manner, and there’s no reason to have attacked President Bush,” he said.
Still, when asked about applause in the room when Bush and McCain were criticized, he said, “It shows the diversity in the party. Again, we need to keep opening up and have a bigger tent.”
Republicans in California are seeking to defend GOP incumbents in seven congressional districts that Hillary Clinton carried last year, including several in suburban Orange County, where the party convened over the weekend. Once a Republican stronghold, Orange County went for Clinton last year — backing a Democrat for the first time since 1936. Now, the county is critical to Democratic efforts to gain control of the House. Democrats are gunning for Rep. Darrell Issa, whose district straddles Orange and San Diego counties, and Reps. Mimi Walters, Ed Royce and Dana Rohrabacher.
“Welcome to Orange County,” Orange County Republican Party Chairman Fred Whitaker told delegates on the opening day of the convention. “We’re the new ‘ground zero’ or Ohio of the West.”
Democrats seized on the convention to further yoke the Republican incumbents to Trump and Bannon — who described himself at the convention as Trump’s “wing man.”
In a statement, California Democratic Party Chairman Eric Bauman said “Steve Bannon is a race-baiting thug masquerading as a pseudo-intellectual. Not since the days of George Wallace and Bull Connor have such prominent racists been considered political leaders, but it’s clear that the Donald Trump Republican Party has chosen to double-down on the alt-right, white supremacist element that Steve Bannon so proudly represents.”
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy brushed off reporters at a luncheon Saturday, telling them he would speak with them later. Instead, he left the ballroom without taking questions after delivering a speech in which he praised Trump’s “character,” “vision,” and “understanding.”
Walters was on hand for the event, but most of California’s House Republicans either did not attend the convention or kept a low profile – not unusual for state conventions in non-election years.
Still, some of those Republicans have sought in recent months to inch closer to more moderate ground. Royce, Issa and Walters have joined the House Climate Solutions Caucus, a bipartisan group of lawmakers formed to address climate change. After Trump announced the unwinding of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, many California Republicans called for legislative action to preserve protections for young immigrants.
But on health care, tax changes and other matters, said Dave Gilliard, a strategist for four of California’s targeted Republicans — Reps. Jeff Denham, Walters, Issa and Royce – any association with Trump’s agenda is unlikely to hurt.
“There’s certainly a lot of people questioning Steve Bannon’s approach,” Gilliard said. “But activists probably love it, and the convention is probably a convention of activists.”
Of Trump administration more broadly, he asserted, “In these [competitive] districts, his policies are not unpopular.”
Trump’s job approval rating is dismal in deep-blue California and not as robust among Republicans as in some other states. Still, Trump’s approval rating stands at 70 percent among California Republicans, according to a recent Public Policy Institute of California poll. And at the convention — a gathering that attracts the party’s most fervent activists – support ran off the charts.
Joe Arpaio, the former Arizona sheriff pardoned by Trump, posed for photographs in the convention halls. John Cox, a longshot candidate for governor, plastered walls with one slogan evocative of Trump – “CleanOutTheBarn” — while delegates wore buttons and t-shirts borrowing from another: “Make California Great Again.”
“The stakes are too high now,” said Ben Bergquam, a Fresno Republican who is helping organize a fledgling bid to repeal California’s expanded protections for undocumented immigrants.
He compared Trump and Bannon favorably “to the limp-noodle Republicans … that tend to be in California,” calling Bannon “a guy who doesn’t pull punches. He tells it like it is.”
Jim Brulte, the state party chairman who had invited Bannon — and who once campaigned for Bush in California — refused to give his own view of Bannon’s criticism of Bush. But he said “most people disagreed with that.”
In general, however, he said of the speech, “I polled about 40 people who run the spectrum from Team Trump to the moderates, and to a person they said it was interesting, thought provoking — they liked it … Most people said they agreed with 90 to 95 percent of it.”
One reason for the Republican Party’s embrace of Trump is simply that he won election, a rare point of pride for a state party desperate for successes of its own. On banners at the convention, the party branded itself as a group “electing Republicans in a Blue State” — more statement of aspiration than point of fact. Democrats control every statewide office in California and have amassed super-majorities in both houses of the state Legislature.
“It can’t get much worse for the California Republicans,” said Kurt Bardella, a former spokesman for Breitbart News and Issa. “Demographics are against them and this has been a lost decade with no electoral successes to speak of.”
Tom Del Beccaro, a former California state party chairman who flew with Bannon to California on Friday, said California Republicans can overlook any stylistic or ideological differences they might have with the White House or its surrogates. Republicans at the convention remained sore about Congress’ failure to repeal Obamacare, but they were optimistic about the prospect of a border wall and hoped for a victory on tax reform.
“At the end of the day, what’s really going to matter is whether Congress passes reforms that Donald Trump can sign,” Del Beccaro said.
As for Trump, he said, “It’s the divided era. There are some people who like him, and some people who don’t.”