Scenes from a dying party?

Faced with declining voter registration, state GOP delegates fight it out over who should lead them

Supporters of Travis Allen rally at the state Capitol on Saturday, one day before the California Republican Party elects its new chairperson.

Supporters of Travis Allen rally at the state Capitol on Saturday, one day before the California Republican Party elects its new chairperson.

Photos by Kris Hooks

12:40 p.m. Friday, February 22—Hyatt Regency banquet hall

“Hello everyone, are you ready to take California back?”

John Cox paces the banquet hall stage in downtown Sacramento’s Hyatt Regency, prowling and shouting in a bid to whip up the crowd of 150 early attendees at the 2019 California Republican Party convention.

“In 2020, we are gonna win back the House of Representatives and we are going to reelect President Donald J. Trump!”

The lunch crowd’s applause crescendos to something akin to fervor. But given the state of the California GOP, it’s difficult to tell if the faithful are genuinely elated or if they’re just putting off the cold reality they’re destined to face this weekend—that their party might be as good as dead.

Last November, Cox suffered a humiliating 24-percentage-point defeat to Democrat Gavin Newsom in the race to become California’s next governor. He wasn’t the only big loser.

Democrats swept elections in all statewide offices. They won a super-majority in both the state Senate and Assembly. And, astoundingly, they won all but seven of California’s 53 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Put simply, it’s a dark time for the party of Lincoln.

“We have a challenge in this state,” Cox says. “We’re outnumbered.”

But the party has a plan, he says. And that is to reach out to the state’s millions of registered independent voters—who now outnumber the withering roll of Republicans—“that agree with us on so many issues.”

The aging delegates nod and erupt once more into cheers as Cox extols the Grand Old Party’s virtues: Free markets and free people.

But they keep losing. They’re low on funds. And party membership is down. All this while the Democrats rule the state outright.

Can California’s GOP find its way this weekend? Or is this, at long last, the end of the end?

California Republican Party delegates gather in a Hyatt Regency ballroom to hear Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming speak on Saturday.

6:40 p.m. Friday, February 22—Capitol Viewing Room

There is a war brewing for the soul of the California Republican Party.

That’s the dramatic hook, at least, for this weekend’s state chairperson’s race as Jim Brulte, a longtime party leader, prepares to step down after six years. Two outsider candidates have gone all-in on President Donald Trump’s fiery MAGA base and border wall enthusiasts, while a third is running a tempered campaign appealing to the moderate establishment.

Here at the welcome reception on the Hyatt’s 15th floor, the war manifests in kitschy stickers, T-shirts and ill-fitting hats.

Patti Murphy, a real estate agent and lifelong Sacramentan, says she’s backing Travis Allen, a flashy upstart who has expanded his Trump-friendly following after his gubernatorial run sputtered out before last June’s primary.

“We need someone that’s honest,” Murphy will later say. “We need someone that’s gonna make a change.”

Allen’s biggest threat is 38-year-old Jessica Patterson. As CEO of California Trailblazers, an organization that has dedicated years to getting California Republicans into office, Patterson has earned the respect of the party elite.

But to the grassroots followers of Allen and Steve Frank—a third candidate and longtime party activist who will attend a “Build the Wall” dinner Saturday evening—Patterson represents an establishment that only knows how to lose and has forgotten the ideals and platform of its right-leaning base.

Murphy says she was an Allen supporter during his run for governor, and if this sprightly 69-year-old is any indicator, his base is fervent. It’s also wide-reaching.

California’s big business interests no longer contribute to Republicans like they once did. Why would they when the few GOP lawmakers in the state Capitol are unable to get bills passed?

Instead, these interests now bet on business-friendly Democrats. When Republican businessman Doug Ose dropped out of the governor’s race in February 2018, he lamented that donors who once freely wrote $25,000 checks to GOP candidates are now pressed to contribute just $1,000.

Allen, however, has tapped into the state’s small but vocal band of Trump acolytes, boasting some 25,000 donors to his gubernatorial campaign. Also like Trump, he favors social media in reaching his base, with nearly half a million Facebook likes and 25,000 Twitter followers.

In a party deeply in need of income and outreach, these outsiders see Allen as the man who can turn things around.

12:20 p.m. Saturday, February 23—GOP convention tables

“I believe that Jessica will be nothing more than a Jim Brulte 2.0,” says Karen Turgeon of Fresno. “And after the last shellacking, we need change.”

It’s the final 24-hour push before the chairperson election, and the Hyatt halls echo with last-minute appeals for delegate votes. Among the candidates’ tables are pop-up shops for Trump 2020 memorabilia, political consulting firms, handmade jewelry and purses. One man hosts a raffle for a painting of Trump enjoying himself in a tavern alongside Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford.

Turgeon reaches for a flier on the table for Frank’s campaign, titled “An Open Letter to Jessica Patterson.”

“Most of the delegates have been instructed by our appointer (elected officials) to vote for you; like good little boys and girls,” reads the anonymous letter. “As if there is no other option; positioning us to be completely beholden to the few who control the purse strings [sic].”

Anonymous fliers like this, some playing loose with facts, have circulated all weekend, urging delegates to vote against Patterson.

In a last-ditch bid to keep the establishment candidate from winning, Frank and Allen announced days before the convention that, should one of them end up in a runoff with Patterson, the third-place nominee would encourage his base to support the other MAGA candidate. Supporters of this initiative unironically sport black-and-white RESIST stickers.

When Patterson detractors talk about “Brulte 2.0,” they are in part referring to the state party’s abysmal voter registration rates over the outgoing chairman’s tenure. When Brulte took office in March 2013, Republicans represented 28.9 percent of the state’s registered voters. In six years that has shrunk to 24 percent, with party registration dropping by 500,000.

According to polling expert Paul Mitchell, 2018 was the first time in the modern era in which more No Party Preference voters took part in a California election than registered Republicans. This is awful news when one considers the 2018 Public Policy Institute of California report revealing the state’s independent voters are more likely to lean Democrat (43 percent) than Republican (29 percent).

Signs of a divided party abound at a convention where headliners include disgraced White House press secretary Sean Spicer, Wyoming Rep. (and daughter of a torture defender) Liz Cheney and Ben Carson, fifth-place finisher in the 2016 Republican presidential primary.

A dozen neo-fascist Proud Boys spend the afternoon among party delegates at the Hyatt bar. Later this evening, a band of anti-fascist protesters will demonstrate against Tea Party delegates as they hold a “Build the Wall” dinner at Claim Jumper. It is a Saturday in which “lock her up” chants converge with the classic GOP imagery of tailored suits and fiscal conservatism. All told, a challenging ecosystem to understand.

Delegates to the California Republican Party convention elected their first female chairperson in their latest move to reverse the party’s decline.

9:18 p.m. Saturday, February 23—Log Cabin/California Young Republican luau

Republicans have long been derided by the left as being mostly pale, male and stale.

But a circuit around the luau-themed mixer hosted by the Log Cabin Republicans and California Young Republicans challenges the old trope. The room is younger and more diverse. Tables throughout the room are decorated with miniature American flags and Reagan masks. Nearby, an older white woman holds a mini flag to her chest.

“I’ve never been to an LGBT event,” she says to a young man.

“Our acceptance level within the party keeps going up,” says Gina Roberts, a trans woman who is a leader in the Log Cabin Republicans.

Roberts says she’s been adamant about attending the party’s more conservative Tea Party functions. And while both groups hosting tonight’s event support Patterson for chairperson, Frank makes a cameo appearance at the party and exchanges greetings with Roberts.

“A lot of the old stereotypes are crumbling,” she says.

Roberts’ friend Lorin Meeks-Harris, a black woman from Sacramento, says that the Log Cabin Republicans have stood up to help other minorities in the party. Still undecided in the chairperson race, Meeks-Harris stresses that what’s important is “somebody who is willing to be a team player.”

Roberts admits that the groups decided to co-host this bash because they both represent small organizations within the party. The Log Cabin Republicans just rechartered with 238 members across 10 state districts. And the youth vote has always been a challenge in the party.

Pre-registration figures show just 9.9 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds joining the GOP, compared to 31.7 percent choosing the Democrats and 52 percent selecting no party at all.

Morgan Murtaugh is one young Republican who bucks the youth trend. Last year, she was the youngest person in the nation to run for Congress, at 25.

“This branch,” she says, “we see the party a little differently. We are welcoming.”

Murtaugh is a strong Patterson supporter. And as a top-two candidate last year, she’s able to bring three more delegates to participate in the vote. Murtaugh says she’s been disappointed by what she views as mudslinging by Patterson’s opponents.

“It definitely is a race for the soul of the party,” she says.

12:47 p.m. Sunday, February 24—Amourath 1819 bar

It’s over. And not everyone is happy.

Earlier this morning, Patterson made history by becoming the first woman (and first Latina) elected chairperson of the California Republican Party. She dashed her MAGA challengers’ hopes of a ’RESISTANCE’ push by winning outright in the first round with 55 percent of the delegates vote. This is, in fact, the most diverse slate of leadership the party has seen, with Taiwanese-American Peter Kuo winning vice chairman.

Four Frank supporters from San Luis Obispo reflect on the results at the nearby bar. “Hard to believe that she had what she got,” says one woman of Patterson’s win. “It was an inside job,” adds another.

A line of delegates snakes through the nearby lobby during the checkout rush. Raymond Perez, 31, of West Sacramento is more upbeat about the Patterson win.

“She’s a Latina, she’s a woman,” says Perez. “That’s the direction I want to see the party going.”

Many delegates at the convention agree that despite the financial and registration woes, and despite the demographic disasters and California’s 2018 blue tsunami, the party’s message is still sound. To them, it’s not about changing the platform, but getting the word out.

Perez sees the party suffering from PR woes. The night before, Roberts said the state GOP never reinstated its state-run registration program after cutting it six years ago when the party was in debt. In her acceptance speech, Patterson asked Allen, her rival, to lead a state registration initiative.

In sticking to its platform, the state GOP is betting that its ideals are not a thing of the past, that it can not only survive a Trump presidency in a state where two out of three voters reject him but can thrive in the years beyond his rule.

They’re betting the farm, and praying they don’t lose.