Born-again Republican

A walking wounded GOP hosts its annual convention in Sacramento this weekend. Our writer goes down the Grand Old rabbit hole to see if ‘Reagan Nation’ can pull off a rebirth.

Jordan Gurnett heads the Sacramento State College Republicans.

Jordan Gurnett heads the Sacramento State College Republicans.

Photo by Wes Davis

Those mashed-potato jowls. That highfalutin, discomforting laugh. Ah, yes, it's Bill O'Reilly on my TV. I'm worried, because it isn't the usual sophistry blowing from his piehole: This Monday evening, Bill O'Reilly is actually making some sense.

The Fox News host and his sidekick, silver-maned Obama stomper Bernie Goldberg, are discussing the “liberal drone conundrum”—which is Fox News speak for how Democrats always forgive the president’s most flagrant military transgressions, yet are outraged by even the slightest GOP hawkism.

“You have Guantanamo Bay,” O’Reilly begins, “and [liberals] were screaming about that. But as soon as President Obama took over, there was no change regarding Guantanamo Bay, but then all the screaming stopped.”

It’s true: Democrats by and large give Barack Obama’s warhead forehead a hall pass. As Harper’s Magazine reported recently, only 2 percent of the people killed by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan last year were actually Taliban or Al Qaeda leaders. Civilians, murder, covert ops—we liberals should be outraged.

Well, you liberals. Not me. Today, I’m a Republican.

I came of age in a GOP household; liberal bashing at the dinner table, or Dan Quayle’s biography on the bookshelf, seemed perfectly normal. These days, however, everyone’s eulogizing the GOP after November’s crash and burn. But it’s likely a shallow grave: The Gipper surely will rise up from Election Day’s ashes.

To better understand how, I joined the party: slapped on my best Tucker Carlson bow tie, crashed the College Republicans meeting, prayed at church and chatted up the local brain trust, all to learn whether “Reagan Nation” is down for the count. Or training for a rematch.

Here come the Republicans

Nudie pictures in the men's room, cheap iced beer, Pat Benatar on the karaoke, faux-wood paneling—the 145 Club in Rio Linda is decidedly, as Toby Keith says, my kind of place. It's also a dive bar brimming with Republicans.

Of all the burgs and pockets in Sacramento County, Rio Linda is a top conservative stronghold. Sure, nearly 70 percent of Rancho Murieta residents picked Mitt Romney over Obama. And Folsom denizens favored the GOP candidate nearly 2-to-1. But Rio Linda, where upward of 64 percent of voters chose Romney, is but a half-court heave from Arco Arena and the Sacto city limits, where Obama prevailed handily. So close, so far away.

On this night, a gray-haired man in his 50s karaokes an on-point rendition of Neil Young’s “Old Man.” Even the falsetto chorus. When he finishes, the four-dozen folk in the bar rap their hands loudly.

I walk up to the man’s table and ask, “I’m doing a survey: How many of you all are Republicans?” Odd looks.

Eventually, though, everyone raises their hands. One guy raises both, proudly. Even the NFL lineman running the karaoke machine plops his hand up.

The Neil Young fan’s name is Mike, from Rio Linda by way of Roseville, and shares that the bar crowd, and the neighborhood in general, is “pretty conservative.” He also says that, while he identifies himself as Republican, he hasn’t voted for any of their candidates since the 1990s.

“’The Decider,’ he was an idiot,” Mike says.

Jason, another Republican at the same table, voted for Romney but was critical of the party, too, saying that it needed to be “more open-minded.”

“Everyone should be equal with each other and should work together on policy,” he says.

So goes the “conservative conundrum” this weekend, when the California Republican Party converges on Sacramento for its annual convention. To the rescue is mega-fundraiser and establishment wizard Karl Rove, who will break from eating post-election crow to rally the punch-drunk. Delegates will vote, and the card-carrying family-values contingent, big-hitter consultants and electeds will rub elbows.

It’s a come-to-Jesus moment for conservatives: Dems spanked local Reeps, such as Dan Lungren, in November; the left seized its first Capitol supermajority since the Great Depression; and Romney face-palmed in a race he really had no business losing.

“We’ve been doing worse and worse and worse every year,” is how Aaron McLear, Sacramento-based political strategist, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger press secretary and self-identified moderate Republican, puts it.

Indeed, the party is moribund—at least according to the post-election media hammering. There’s truth to this conservative-irrelevance narrative; top California Republican Party brass even admitted to SN&R that its grassroots get-out-the-vote and fundraising infrastructure is woeful.

But this “death of the party” storyline, however dire, is also a familiar media tome. It’s only been eight years since President George W. Bush was winning re-elections and riding high in the approval-numbers game, Schwarzenegger was puffing Cubans under the rotunda, and journalists were writing the Democrats’ obituary.

McLear, who also served as communications director during the Bush-Cheney re-election in 2004, reminds that the media hubbub after Dubya’s second “W” was all about the liberals’ imminent and certain demise.

“But then, in 2006, we [Republicans] got our asses kicked,” he told SN&R. “And we haven’t recovered yet.”

The healing begins this weekend, when the state party elects a new chairman, Jim Brulte, the last conservative to enjoy true power in the state Legislature; he presided over a GOP majority in the Assembly from 1994 to 1996.

Of everyone SN&R spoke to for this story, all praised Brulte as a nose-to-the-grindstone, anti-sound-bite politician. McLear says he’s “exactly the right person” for the gig, a guy who “lacks of ego” and gets the “importance of the nuts and bolts of building a party.”

Conservatives sure need this leadership. The only statewide offices they’ve taken in the past 15 years were won by billionaires, Steve Poizner or Hollywood action heroes. It’s been a quarter-century since they sent a senator to Capitol Hill. And registered GOP voters in California now stand at 29 percent (Democrats are at nearly 44 percent).

“The party here, in a lot of ways, has become more of a church,” McLear argues. “They’ve been very righteous, but not very successful.”

God save the GOP

They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway, but on this clear-sky Sunday morning just blocks from the Tower Theatre, there's also magic in the air. And by magic, I mean Jesus.

The House is a brick-red former-office-complex-turned church—a satellite location for one of the largest evangelical congregations in the region, Bayside Church in Granite Bay—on 19th Street and Broadway. A sign announces that its parking lot is full this morning, just after 9 a.m., so worshipers leave their cars blocks away and huff in.

Before reaching the entrance, drum rolls and keyboard splashes rise above the nearby freeway’s flashing cars. Inside, a couple hundred churchgoers face a band on an altar, many with arms raised to the heavens and eyes closed. The six-piece house band is actually tight, talented. Lead singer and pastor Christa Armstead boasts serious pipes; she belts, “Shout out your name, I am yours, I am yours!” and worshipers rise to their feet, a few crying the lyrics back at her. Three flat-screen TVs flank the stage and play a feed of the song’s words.

Soon, Pastor Bob Balian, a bald guy in dad jeans and a baggy collared shirt, takes the stage. He applauds, insists that everyone shake a stranger’s hand, then shows a commercial for a Christian money-planning seminar called “Financial Peace” (this weekend, only $89 to attend). His sermon is on temptation. How does one resist? It’s easy: God.

Evangelical Christians again were the largest voting block in America this past election, comprising some 27 percent of the electorate. And nearly 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Romney, a number that reflects a 6 percent increase over white evangelicals who voted for John McCain in 2008, and, perhaps surprisingly, the same percentage who voted for Bush in ’04, according to a report in The Atlantic.

Yet these evangelical voters, who’ve wielded big-time political influence since the President Ronald Reagan era, are failing: Voters by and large rejected the GOP’s position on social issues like abortion and gay rights. Four states even legalized same-sex marriage in November.

Meanwhile, more and more young voters are turning away from religion and the evangelical values so espoused by the right.

“That really has shown up recently, in particular, and that’s making up a huge percentage of young people,” noted religion and political science expert Rebecca Glazier. A quarter of all 18- to 30-year-olds identify themselves as “nones,” or voters with no religious affiliation—the fastest growing voter demographic in America, she says.

Sacramento State College Republicans’ vice chairman, Aubrey Riley, kicks off a meeting with a conservative-philosophy quotation.

Photo By wes davis

Glazier is a professor out of the University of Arkansas, but has local ties: She partnered last year with faculty at UC Davis on a mobile app, which quizzed people’s responses in real time to the three presidential debates. She and her colleagues crunched the app’s numbers and will present findings at a conference this month.

She says that, despite pressure for Republicans to move back to the center on social issues and break free of the conservative-values mold, “The evangelical vote is still a huge component of the GOP, and they can’t turn their backs on it for sure.

“To win elections, you have to have the particular group, you have to get them to vote for you in a really strong percentage,” Glazier says. And for conservatives, evangelicals are that No. 1 blue-chip group.

What caught my attention at the evangelical church on Broadway, however, was the diversity of its congregants. I’ve visited Bayside Church in Granite Bay; it’s predominately white. But The House’s 250 or so attendees were a multiethnic and diverse bunch—and surely not composed of 80 percent Romney voters (Pastor Balian, who might have chimed in on this, did not respond to SN&R’s multiple emails and phone call by deadline). Evangelical churches are also moving away from the sort of Jerry Falwell, Moral Majority-type political rhetoric at the pulpit; Pastor Balian mentioned nary a political issue on Sunday.

Perhaps the GOP will no longer ace the Christian base in years to come?

Like student, like Grandma

Twenty students, including five women, listen as a tall Barry Goldwater admirer, who sports vintage black-rimmed glasses and dresses like he's in the Matt Drudge fan club, kicks off the Sacramento State College Republicans meeting with a quotation on how social forces corrupt democracy. Then he asks everyone to guess its author. James Madison? Ron Paul? No, James Fenimore Cooper, from his 1838 tome The American Democrat.

These College Republicans convene each Thursday evening on the first floor of the mathematics and child-development department building inside a shock-white lecture hall. Today’s powwow quickly devolves into a procedural discourse on amendments to their constitution, but is occasionally rescued by trivial chat about purchasing T-shirts or optimal ways to recruit new members (one suggestion: post dorm fliers that say “Best Party on Campus”). There’s discussion about volunteering at this weekend’s convention, including romanticizing the prospects of small talk with GOP elite.

Introductions come later on: your name, your major, your favorite politician (the women prefer Paul Ryan).

Foreshadowing a possible top-shelf issue for the GOP in 2016, club chairman Jordan Gurnett recaps education bills making the rounds at the Capitol, including a proposal by Assemblyman Tim Donnelly—you know, the guy who recently pitched that teachers-to-carry-firearms-at-schools bill—to disallow sales tax on college textbooks.

“Tim Donnelly, I love him,” one woman shares.

Each meeting ends with pizza at Round Table. Gurnett, apparently, has advised members not to speak with SN&R, although one College Republican, Anthony Abdelsayed, a really decent guy who introduces himself as the group’s communications director, agrees to chat. But only via email.

His calculated replies, however, don’t inspire. “Instead of focusing on division of the party we need to work toward a united party that emphasizes issues that are important to all Americans,” captures the spirit of all his responses. But what does intrigue is, ultimately, how the 20-something Republicans at Sacramento State University sound a lot like local Republicans three to four times their age.

Bonnie Williams, sweet-hearted president of the American River Republican Women Federated, didn’t always bleed Republican. The 77-year-old comes from a family of Democrats and union workers, and actually leaned liberal—“I can’t believe that I voted for Ted Kennedy”—in the 1960s.

With Lyndon B. Johnson, though, she’d had enough. “During Johnson’s Great Society, I predicted what was going to happen,” she told SN&R, “and look what’s happened. So many people are depending on the government, so many women are having children, and they don’t know who their fathers are.”

Yes, even after Romney’s “47 percent” moment and the right’s struggles to appeal to women voters, a large swath of the GOP establishment still pins its tail on the entitlements donkey, still pushes the conservative-values wagon up a hill.

How can the GOP reconcile this old-values, youth-movement quagmire?

Nationally, the GOP is a party fractured. Ideologues like Glenn Beck—when he’s not busy shilling his custom $129 blue jeans online—denounce establishment lawmakers while party strongholds grapple to steer the ship. Fox News, which is losing 25- to 54-year-old viewers but remains the top-rated cable-news channel going on 11 years, rests somewhere in the middle of this divide.

And young Republicans still clamor for a voice. They’re trying their darnedest to teach elder conservatives, like former Romney campaign manager Stuart Stevens, how to use Twitter, but the party remains very Grandma-Grandpa when it comes the Internet.

For instance, as The New York Times reported last month, the national Democrats new-media and crowdfunding efforts still dwarf the GOP’s: Romney’s campaign friended 12 million Facebook users, “triple that of Obama’s operation in 2008.” But Obama boasted 33 million friends—and used them and new technology more effectively to get out the vote, such as his campaign’s vaunted Mobile Pollwatcher app for Election Day.

The College Republicans agree that the GOP can at least “increase its presence to online users,” but Abdelsayed insisted that since the Internet isn’t really going anywhere, the party will have time to catch up.

Likely true. But there will still be speed bumps. As Williams, who’ll be 80 by the next presidential election, put it: “We’re not just going to pick up our marbles and go home.”

A few good conservatives

More than once while growing up in south Placer County, I was ridiculed for supporting Republicans. In elementary school, when a teacher asked who the best president ever was, I responded, “Ronald Reagan”—and this teacher couldn't hold back his sarcasm, even laughing. When Bill Clinton beat George H.W. Bush, I remember friends taunting me for “liking whoever your parents like.” It's embarrassing now—but then, it was traumatizing.

My parents indeed were suburban conservatives, and today, Placer County remains a GOP stronghold. Nearly 60 percent of residents voted for Romney in November, and well more than half of voters registered as GOP supporters. Including my dad.

Dad’s voted Republican his entire life, except when I was born: He elected Jimmy Carter because, like many, he was pissed at Gerald Ford for pardoning Richard Nixon. That was his lone liberal transgression in more than four decades of casting ballots; he simply didn’t like the guy anymore.

Today, however, it’s funny how Dad confesses that he doesn’t much care for any candidates.

“These politicians,” he laments over lunch, “I’m for cleaning house and starting all over.”

Matt Rexroad, a conservative on the Yolo County Board of Supervisors, agrees that the GOP needs to focus on its likability factor. Campaigns and candidacies should be more about “putting a good person forward instead of putting a good partisan forward,” he argues.

A moderate Republican with a savvy Twitter presence who also works as a political consultant, Rexroad says he knew Romney had zero chance of winning last year.

“’What’s going to happen in the presidential election?’” he remembers people asking him. “President Obama’s going to win,” Rexroad responded.

The rationale was simple, superficial: “If I can get people to like my candidate as a person, they’re probably going to win.”

Meanwhile, others see a snag in this “nice guys finish first” philosophy: young voters.

New voters, ages 19-29, have participated in elections at nearly 50 percent over the past two presidential races. They also appear to have already made up their minds about Republicans.

Sixty percent of 18- to 29-year-olds voted for Obama last year. Democrats continue to aggressively court this demographic, which comprises nearly 20 percent of the electorate, with new-media and get-out-the-vote campaigns.

Inevitably, though, the GOP will get its act together with courting younger voters.

To this end, Rexroad doesn’t buy the argument that the GOP’s social values must evolve.

“People say we need to change positions. [But the] GOP is very viable in D.C. still,” he argues. “A candidate must transcend the GOP stereotype so that people see them and say, ’I don’t see a Republican, I see a nice person.’”

The words “nice guy” and Paul Ryan—or Jeb Bush, Rick Santorum, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio—won’t likely be part of the 2016 electorate vernacular, however. Meanwhile, Obama’s established powerhouse grassroots machine, under its new name, Organizing for Action, and popular brand Hillary Clinton will definitely be fine-tuned for prime time in three years.

Yes, that’s a long way in political years. But there’s also a lingering sense of resignation among Republicans, especially in the national media, that one cycle won’t be enough to mount a second coming.

Maybe this is because members of the GOP ultimately know that what they really need are a few good Republicans. And, perhaps, that’s just a dying breed.