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AirTalk at 30: California Republicans say it's time to adapt — or fail

GOP panelists at an AirTalk forum on the future of the California GOP argue to emphasize a more diverse pool of candidates and to reframe issues to appeal to a diverse electorate.

California — which  makes and breaks national elections — once sent Republicans Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to the White House. But the Republican Party in the state is at a crossroads as 2016 approaches, and those who would see the state GOP succeed argue that it's time to adapt to the new realities of the state's increasingly diverse population.

That was the prevailing view of panelists who spoke with AirTalk at a forum, Monday, on the future of the California GOP, which took place at Sunnylands, the historic Annenberg estate in Rancho Mirage. The occasion was AirTalk’s 30th anniversary. 

Republican groups are seeking both to emphasize a more diverse pool of candidates and to reframe issues to appeal to the state’s growing bloc of independent voters, whom politicos call NPPs, or no-party-preference.

“There’s a narrative that 'we can target our base, boost turnout’” and win elections that way, said Mindy Romero, director of the nonpartisan California Civic Engagement Project at UC Davis’ Center for Regional Change. “That ship has sailed in California.”

One sign that the state GOP is already preparing for the future: This week, the state GOP formally recognized the gay rights group Log Cabin Republicans in its charter.

“This wasn’t a close vote,” said Log Cabin Republicans outgoing chairman Charles Moran. “It was an overwhelming landslide.

He added: “We are part of a line of strategic moves to incorporate diverse Californians.” He also pointed to GOP gains among Asian-Americans in Orange County.

Party members also point to the local GOP's importance on the national stage as 2016 approaches:

  • Former California Senate candidate Carly Fiorina may be mounting a presidential campaign.
  • Prominent governors like New Jersey’s Chris Christie, Texas’s Rick Perry and Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal are coming to rally votes, not just to collect checks from donors.
  • And constituents who once were seen as automatic Democrats — young voters and people of color — are more and more likely to call themselves independents.

By 2040, California will have 8.3 million new registered voters, according to projections by the nonpartisan California Civic Engagement Project at UC Davis’ Center for Regional Change. Of those, 8 million will be people of color.

Old white guys need not apply?

Latinos, meanwhile, are the fastest-growing group in the state, accounting for 38 percent of the population, according to the U.S. Census.

“Speaking as an old white guy, I’d advise the party not to run people like me,” said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College and longtime Republican observer.

There’s no magic formula for the perfect candidate to attract Latino voters to the GOP, said Ruben Barrales, whose political action committee Grow Elect funds up-and-coming Latino Republicans.

“I don’t know if it was a blue and black dress or a white and gold dress,” he joked. But Barrales sees color-flipping opportunity in the voter registration rolls when it comes to expensive and controversial public policy.

“The largest growing demographic in our state is Hispanics. So guess who’s going to be holding the bag in 10, 20, 30 years, when in comes to pension reform or education reform?” he asked.

California Republicans often chafe against the image that the national party projects, particularly its emphasis on social issues.

“There are a lot of people — aside from the social issues — who would connect deeply with the Republican Party. [But] we’re seen as a party that rhetorically if not actually wants to run the car into a wall,” said Pepperdine professor Pete Peterson, who was the Republican candidate for Secretary of State in 2014.  

Moran echoed that sentiment, referring to candidates like Peterson, whose party affiliation looms in the minds of socially progressive Californians.

“We have got phenomenal candidates that we're running in this state, but they're getting completely washed out because people want to argue about abortion and gay marriage and immigration, even though the bulk of the elected officials on the municipal level in the state of California are Republicans."

The disconnect between state and national Republicans may cut both ways. Pointing to the GOP's major Congressional wins in the 2014 midterms, Claremont McKenna’s Pitney noted that Republicans in California “probably would have picked up more seats if the national party had been more supportive.”

Barrales pointed to Republican members of Congress who are elected repeatedly in majority-Democratic districts in the Central Valley, like Modesto’s Jeff Denham and Hanford’s David Validao.

On issues like immigration, Barrales said, “You’ll see them distancing themselves [from the national party]. They’re the models I think for successful Republicans in California.”

Likewise, Pepperdine’s Pete Peterson had an optimistic slant.

“There are some significant changes going on within the Republican Party in California. And we’re competing against a party in the Democrats that is showing fissures.”

AirTalk panelists had some suggestions for areas of improvement in Republican messaging when it comes to engaging California voters:

  • Pete Peterson: “We have got to do a better job of promoting life. Foster care… adoption… these are Republican issues.”
  • Jack Pitney: highlight Republicans’ record of supporting people with disabilities
  • Ruben Barrales: Education, pension reform. “We’re not spending a lot of time on ideology. I think that’s the model.”
  • Charles Moran: Pension reform (“it’s coming” in the form of a ballot initiative). “The public and the vast public in California is going to be with us.”
  • And advice from non-partisan researcher Mindy Romero on for anyone looking to engage Latino voters: “You have to have deep contact.You have to connect. You have to talk their realities, their community, and why vote at all.”

Which issues could California Republicans own? If you’re an NPP voter (no party preference), or a Democrat, could you be persuaded to choose a Republican candidate? Please post a comment below, post to our Facebook page or answer on Twitter (@AirTalk).

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