Chairman Jim Brulte leads a meeting at the California Republican Party convention in Burlingame in May. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Phil Willon and Christine Mai-Duc
February 24, 2017

Jim Brulte hopes to keep a job few would envy: As chairman of the California Republican Party, he’s tasked with trying to steer his party out of the wilderness in one of the bluest states in the nation.

As the party looks ahead to a high-stakes governor’s race and midterm elections in 2018, it faces a grim reality: A Republican hasn’t been elected to statewide office here in more than a decade, and the Democrats hold a powerful supermajority in the state Legislature. The GOP’s share of registered voters in California is just 27.3%, its lowest since 1980, and it has yet to field a prominent candidate in the 2018 governor’s race.

Brulte vows that the party’s fortunes will improve in the 2018 election, including one or two top-shelf candidates running for governor. He’ll make his case in Sacramento this weekend at the California Republican Party’s three-day convention, where GOP delegates banking on Brulte to deliver are expected to vote Sunday in favor of extending his reign as chairman for a third term.

Donald Trump’s election provides an opening, Brulte said. California’s Democratic leadership is so focused on battling the new Trump administration that they are ignoring growing concerns at home, he said. The state’s roads, bridges and dams have fallen into disrepair, poverty is on the rise, middle-class families struggle to afford a decent home and massive pension liabilities still loom — all problems that have festered under the watch of Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown and the Democratic-controlled state Legislature, Brulte and other state Republican leaders said.

“We are looking for opportunities where Democrats are out of step with the districts they represent because they are bowing down to a liberal Washington Democrat establishment that is fundamentally out of touch with where the country is, and where California is,” Brulte said in a recent interview.

The difficulty will be convincing Californians that Republicans have the answers, especially as GOP leaders in Washington dismantle the Affordable Care Act, crack down on immigrants in the country illegally and strip away environmental protections — moves that are popular with a conservative base, but don’t play well out west.

“The first step is honestly acknowledging that the Republican brand is fractured,” said Stanislaus County Supervisor Kristin Olsen, vice chairwoman of the state party. “Then it’s taking clear steps to improve that brand, to tell people that we as California Republicans care about their daily struggles with healthcare, immigration policies, schools and economic opportunities.”

GOP leaders have seen the 2018 election as a potential Republican spring, a time when years of hard work helping Republicans win seats on city councils, county commissions and local school boards would begin to bear fruit in bigger races.

Despite their low numbers in Sacramento and California’s congressional delegation, Republicans have done well in local government races. As of earlier this year, Republicans accounted for 42% of elected city officeholders in California and Democrats accounted for 46%, according to data compiled by political consulting firm GrassrootsLab. In the California Legislature, Republicans account for 32% of lawmakers and Democrats account for 68%.

Posts on city councils and county boards are nonpartisan. Candidates running for the Legislature, Congress and statewide office have their political party listed on the ballot, and that can be a major obstacle in a deep-blue state.

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