California Republicans fear even bigger trouble ahead for their wounded party

California’s Republican Party is in deep trouble, and in interviews with both outgoing and returning state House Republicans, none could offer a specific message or path forward.

The California GOP got walloped in 2018, losing all seven closely contested congressional seats and all statewide elections. It also got pummeled in State Assembly and local elections.

State Republican officials readily concede the party faces huge problems. Some — though not all — say state party Chairman Jim Brulte’s warnings long ago about the need to appeal to minority groups should have been heeded.

While Brulte and others have long warned of danger, such as the difficulty appealing to minority groups like Asian Americans and Latino Americans, few Republicans in recent years would not or could not offer solutions.

Seventy percent of Asian Americans in California voted for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016 and 71 percent of Latinos did the same. Latinos made up 31 percent of the 2016 state electorate while Asian Americans were 12 percent, according to network exit polls.

It’s hard to find state Republicans optimistic about 2020, even those coming off double-digit wins as one of their own, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-California, ascends to Republican leader in the House next month.

“You know the Bee Gees song?” asked Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-California, when asked his thoughts on the future of California Republicans. “’Ah, ah, ah, ah, staying alive, staying alive.’”

The California Republican Party had 14 of 53 congressional seats before the 2018 election and next year will have seven.

The 2018 election proved the losses are a party problem, not a candidate problem, Brulte said.

It’d be hard to find better Republican hopefuls than Republican Reps. Jeff Denham and Mimi Walters or candidate Young Kim, according to Brulte. They all lost in the “unmistakeable” blue wave.

Republicans feel that wave was exacerbated by voter laws that they say helped Democrats. Also aiding Democrats: They were unified on a health care message that proved hugely effective in 2018. Democrats campaigned as the party that wanted to protect pre-existing condition coverage and make health care more affordable.

Democrats plan to stay with that message in 2020, while both outgoing and remaining Republicans have often concentrated on criticizing the media and new state voter laws.

But, Brulte said, Republicans need to put emphasis on how to appeal to minority groups, groups that widely disapprove of the leader of the party, President Donald Trump.

“Until the issue of immigration is completely dealt with, California Republicans are going to have trouble,” Brulte said, not specifying exactly what that would entail. Trump continues to push for a U.S-Mexico border wall and more restrictive immigration laws.

Walters, the outgoing congresswoman, blamed the party’s troubles on “the machine” of Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi, D-California, and voting laws passed by the “liberal legislature.” California passed four new voting laws that took effect in 2018, such as motor voter and same-day voter registration, all of which made voting easier.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-California, who retired from Congress and is taking a job with Trump’s administration, blamed the Democrats “turnout machine” and a lack of outside spending by Republicans in certain races.

When asked how Republicans combat all these woes, and what they need to do to turn out their own voters, Issa got on an elevator and remained silent until the doors closed.

Returning Rep. Paul Cook, R-California, whose district is 40 percent Latino, agreed with Brulte on the need to appeal to more minorities. But he said representing those voters’ interests with Trump as president has gotten more difficult. Cook still won his seat by 20 points in 2018 — but the margin was a marked decrease over previous years. He thinks 2020 will be more difficult due to anticipated demographic changes.

“It’s a very dicey situation — I just went through that,” Cook said. “If you don’t handle it right, you lose your election, and we all know it.”

Brulte said he saw these problems coming in September 2016, when he hosted a briefing with congressional Republicans on demographic changes crucial to the party’s success in California.

Attendance at those party meetings had dwindled every election cycle.

He told fellow Republicans if they didn’t start paying attention to the numbers — namely, that Asian Americans and Latino Americans were rising demographics in California and their numbers would keep increasing while other populations dropped — their party was going to continue to suffer in elections.

“Within three election cycles, I said there will only be seven or eight of you,” said Brulte, now the outgoing chair. “I didn’t expect it to come so quickly.”

Kate Irby is based in Washington, D.C. and reports on issues important to McClatchy’s California newspapers, including the Sacramento Bee, Fresno Bee and Modesto Bee. She previously reported on breaking news in D.C., politics in Florida for the Bradenton Herald and politics in Ohio for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.