The ongoing struggle over the direction of the GOP played out this weekend as the California Republican Party met at its convention: The party in California and elsewhere is torn between supporters who want to steadfastly hold to conservative principles and those who want to take a more moderate, pragmatic approach that could resonate with a broader cross section of voters.
The choice could not be more clear than in the two Republicans vying to challenge Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown. Tim Donnelly is a conservative state assemblyman who advocates expanding gun rights, and Neel Kashkari is a former U.S. Treasury official who wants to focus on the economy and education.
Kashkari is clearly in the expansion camp.
“The Republican Party in 2012 was cast as the party of no, the party that doesn’t like different, diverse communities, the party that’s only for old, rich white guys,” Kashkari, 40, told the gay group Log Cabin Republicans on Saturday.
“The new Republican Party that I want to build is the diverse Republican Party. … Every ethnicity, every sexual orientation, every lifestyle, everyone is welcome. The biggest tent you’ve ever seen in your life,” he said.
The GOP has been steadily losing support in California for two decades, and registration has slipped below 29 percent. The party has struggled to win over younger voters and minorities, and party Chairman Jim Brulte said broadening the party’s reach to potential new voters is a top priority this election year.
Still, the delegates who typically attend party conventions are among the most active and passionate, so many of those at the weekend gathering in Burlingame were sporting “Donnelly for governor” stickers.
“The only thing Republican about Kashkari is the ‘R’ after his name,” said Judi Neal, a member of the Pasadena Republican Women Federated. “I don’t think he’s capable of reaching out to conservatives.”
Christopher Cole, who is chairman of the party in Lassen County in far northeastern California, said a moderate candidate would have a tough sell wooing conservatives in his county.
“We respect all candidates, but I think Tim’s probably got the heart and soul of the county, particularly on hot-button issues like guns,” Cole said. “I’m thinking about inviting Neel up there, but I don’t know how his reception would be.”
Kashkari did not address a conservative group that met Saturday morning, and the Conservative Republican Assembly endorsed Donnelly, 47, a lawmaker from the San Bernardino community of Twin Peaks. Likewise, Donnelly did not appear at the Log Cabin Republicans meeting.
One of the issues that has energized conservative activists is a bill signed into law by Brown that allows transgender students to access the restrooms and locker rooms of their choice. A proposed ballot initiative to repeal the law failed to gather enough signatures to qualify.
“It is not about homosexuality, and it is certainly not about transgender students — it’s going to turn them into targets,” Donnelly told the conservatives. “We are going to unite parents against this stupid law.”
Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is now a professor at Stanford University in Palo Alto, implored Republicans to unite around a shared vision of the nation during a luncheon address.
“California needs to be rebuilt, too, around these principles of individual responsibility and liberty,” Rice said to applause.
Both of the California gubernatorial candidates recognize the need to appeal to Latino voters in a state where about half the residents are Hispanic. Their messages to the California Republican National Hispanic Assembly were very different, however.
“I think we have to stop pandering and thinking there is a different message because of someone’s skin color, because the colors of freedom are red, white and blue,” Donnelly told the group.
Kashkari, who is of Indian heritage, said he deliberately gave his first television interview to the Latino network Univision.
“I said I want your viewers to know they are not an afterthought — they are my first thought,” he said.
At Donnelly’s convention booth, placed next to a tea party display, volunteers were working a “genius bar” modeled after a feature in Apple stores, demonstrating and installing the campaign’s mobile application to potential supporters.
For many of the delegates, this weekend is their first chance to meet Kashkari, who is best known as the former U.S. Treasury official who oversaw the bank bailout at the start of the Great Recession. He recorded an Instagram video before reporters, and his enthusiastic young volunteers handed out bumper stickers and bags of popcorn.
Log Cabin Chairman Charles Moran said he was encouraged that Kashkari supports gay marriage and Donnelly recently said that he thinks government should get out of peoples’ marriages, whether gay or straight.
“I’m hoping that the party has finally gotten it through their heads that fighting battles on social issues in California will result in losses for Republicans,” he said. “We’ve got to focus on the things that bring us together and letting people live the lives that they want to lead and not getting in each other’s business.”
Donnelly, who lost his campaign manager in a public falling out earlier this week and has struggled with fundraising, said his message is appealing “way beyond the conservative base.”