Crashing the (Grand Old) Party

Additional reporting (and drinking) by Dave Kempa.

It’s a strange feeling lying to Republicans. On the one hand, weapons of mass destruction, death panels and birthers make me think they’d appreciate a good whopper. On the other, fibbing is bad. On the other other hand, free alcohol is awesome.

That's the real reason a fellow reporter and I infiltrate a party-faithful mixer on the eve of the California Republican Party Spring Convention 2013—not to study California conservatives in their natural habitat, but to knock back a couple of cold ones.

Over the course of a couple days, a fawning assembly of GOP loyalists will turn out to hear Karl Rove dust off Internet potshots at Al Gore (party like it's 1999, Rovey) and indulge subgroup chatter about how to get gays and immigrants on the elephant bandwagon. But that's for later. As of now, the Republican Party has already cracked the secret code to this leftist reporter's heart: complimentary drink tickets.

Two welcoming Sacramento County Republican Party reps usher us through the crowded entry of Gallagher's Irish Pub and hand us more than our fair share of drink tickets.

A sepia-tinted visage of Rove is the only thing giving us the stink eye, staring us down from a row of book jacket covers for his autobiography. Our generous hosts are hawking presigned copies for a discount price of $10 apiece, but the books aren't moving.

Once inside, we're swimming in a crush of blandly attractive Reagan babies, and everyone's drunk or getting there. It's like being at a Romney family reunion where someone spiked the sugar-free punch with Red Bull. We're one Trace Adkins song away from dying in a line-dancing stampede.

Despite being dressed in our yuppiest duds and prepared to grumble “Ohhhbama” at any moment, we aren't the only ones here playing pretend. A Bay Area assembly candidate who describes the party as “decimated” plans to appeal to area immigrants without ever mentioning immigration. He is himself an immigrant, so it might be tough.

“We have a terrible brand right now,” he says. “One person says something stupid in Kansas, and we all pay for it.”


For the most part, however, everyone's cool, even though we stick out like a pair of blue-collar thumbs. Someone hands my colleague another drink ticket, while others try to help me grab the overwhelmed bartender’s attention. A small, black-haired woman who works for Elizabeth Emken asks me to order her boss a light beer, and I oblige. Even though I have no idea who Elizabeth Emken is. (Apparently, she lost to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, possibly because she supports light beer.)

After spilling some bottom-shelf cabernet—living off the Republican dole brings out the wastrel in me—I pop into the restroom. A frumpy GOP groupie in a pale-lemon polo hunches over the urinal, pouring out yellow liquid from a plastic Crystal Geyser bottle. Must have been a long drive from 1988.

Noticing me, he gets sheepish and picks up the stuffed tote bag at his feet. His embarrassment disappears, however, upon spotting the clean-cut flak behind me. The suit represents a south Orange County Assembly member.

“I don't have her yet!” the groupie says, snatching a card out of the guy's hand. Yes, he's collecting business cards as if they are trading cards.

At least inside the big tent of a hotel bar men's room, the GOP's appeal is still golden.