Praise for the California GOP’s recent signs of life gets heaped on Chairman Jim Brulte. But to hear him tell it, the credit goes to party leaders who pitched in to walk precincts and county chairs whom he wants to empower to recruit, to fundraise, to win.
Brulte was reelected at the party’s convention at the end of February, and while it would be easy to nitpick the California GOP’s problems and the weirdness that tends to flock to conventions, the commitment to Brulte is promising.
The party began the year with around $1 million in the bank. Republicans last fall beat back the Democrats’ supermajority in both chambers of the legislature with a delegation that’s grown increasingly diverse. They won in blue districts, creating inroads in traditional Democratic strongholds—like Los Angeles County and the outskirts of the Bay area.
Democrats still have dominant majorities in the legislature and hold every statewide office and major advantages in voter registration. Ambitions were kept in check at the convention. There wasn’t a lot of talk about winning the retiring Barbara Boxer’s U.S. Senate seat in 2016. Republicans will certainly take a shot—Rocky Chavez, an assemblyman from San Diego County, has already announced his candidacy. But it will be a costly, uphill battle.
What was discussed frequently at the convention? Success, and how to create more of it.
I met Brulte at a Panera Bread in Fontana, just days before the convention. He walked up with the sartorial splendor of a southern Californian—camp shirt, jeans, and black cowboy boots. He towered over me like the San Gabriel Mountains over the city. He was finishing up his campaign for a second two-year term as chairman. He seemed to be in a good mood and offered to pay for lunch, which I declined. He joked that a reporter won’t accept lunch during a one-on-one interview, but eating the free food in the press room at a convention is done with no remorse. Touché.
Brulte doesn’t speak with the media often. He shies from ideological disputes, and prefers that candidates and elected officials do the talking. He is more comfortable doing the “nuts and bolts” work, and tries to be a sobering voice. “I’m not going to be the happy talk guy, who tells you everything is great and leads you into an election cycle and loses,” Brulte says. “Which, by the way, we’d been doing for a number of years.”
Since becoming chair in March 2013, he’s focused on rebuilding from the ground up. “You start by diagnosing accurately where we are as a party,” Brulte said. “We are a party that for the last 35 years, 37 years has been in a rather significant decline.”
Brulte, a former Republican leader of both chambers of the legislature, became chair when the party had hit bottom. It was in debt—owing between $800,000 and $1.3 million—voter registration had dipped to 28 percent statewide, all statewide offices were blue, and the Democratic grip on the legislature was about to become a supermajority stranglehold.
“Triage” is how Brulte described his first year. Few records had been kept, technology was outdated, and even simple data entry was performed multiple times. “We had to put systems in place,” he said. “They weren’t tracking anything. But we track everything. Goals have to be measurable . . . otherwise they’re just ideas.”
The party started tracking its own demographics, showing almost an even split between men and women, with a slight advantage to the fairer sex. Latinos are the largest minority group at approximately 14 percent, and about one-third of the party is of minority status. That meant more work with party allies like GROW Elect and the California Women’s Leadership Association, which cultivate Latinos and women, respectively, for public office and other leadership positions.
Women were elected as Republican leaders in both chambers of the legislature: Kristin Olsen in the assembly and Jean Fuller in the senate. Janet Nguyen became the first Vietnamese American to serve in the state senate, while a Taiwanese-American woman and a Korean-American woman were both sent to the assembly. In Orange County, long the conservative bastion of southern California, Republican Asian Americans hold a majority on the County Board of Supervisors.
“Winning elections is not all that difficult,” Brulte said. “In a neighborhood election, the candidate who most looks like, sounds like, has the shared values and shared experiences of the majority of the people in the neighborhood tends to win. One of the problems facing Republicans in California is that they haven’t noticed the demographics of California have changed.”