California Republicans Look To Brulte To Lead Comeback

Following a catastrophic election for the California Republican Party, influential members of the party have recruited a prominent former legislator, Jim Brulte, to lead a comeback.

The former Senate Republican leader has been discussing his interest in the party chairmanship with members of the party since the election a month ago. Brulte is a giant in GOP circles, having helped Republicans in the 1990s win a majority in the state Assembly for the first time in nearly 25 years.

The situation for the California GOP appears far more critical now. They hold no statewide offices, suffered a net loss of four House seats (they hold 15 of 53 in California) and allowed Democrats to achieve a two-thirds majority in the state Legislature for the first time since the 1880s.

Republican voter registration has fallen below 30 percent statewide, and the party is essentially broke.

Brulte, 56, has not discussed the chairmanship publicly. Activists and party leaders with whom he has spoken expect him to be a candidate during the organization’s spring elections. He is widely expected to win.

“His political judgment is superb,” Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, said Wednesday. “I found out about his interest from (House Majority Whip) Kevin McCarthy and told him to sign me up immediately.”

Mike Spence, president of the Conservative Republicans of California, said Brulte told him he talked with fellow partners at his public affairs company, California Strategies LLC, about becoming party chairman.

“I think having someone like Jim Brulte as chair shows we’re not dead in California,” Spence said. “He has a lot of credibility with donors and grass-roots activists and other people. I think it would be a morale boost for the party.”

Jason Kinney, a spokesman for California Strategies, said in an email, “The Republicans here support it and the Democrats oppose it – because the one thing we all agree on is that, if Jim decides to do it, he’ll be extremely effective.”

If he is elected, Brulte will be expected to resurrect the party’s sunken fundraising apparatus and make voter registration gains, if only incrementally.

Jeff Randle, a Republican strategist, said a Brulte chairmanship “would be a huge win for our party.”

Brulte has for years been warning about the Republican Party’s shortcomings, including its failure to adapt to California’s growth in Latino voters. After the GOP was battered in California in the 1998 elections, Brulte said the political action committee he controlled would use its contributions to broaden the traditional Republican candidate base, trying to recruit “good Hispanic, black, Asian, female (and) Jewish Republican candidates.”

More than a decade later, Brulte predicted last year that the 2012 election would be even worse for Republicans than in 2010, when Democrats swept the statewide elections. By almost any measure, he was right.

Garry South, a Democratic strategist and partner at California Strategies, described Brulte as a “solidly conservative guy … but he’s not a nut about it.”

“I think that if he decides to do it, there couldn’t be any better choice,” South said. “He is a great strategic political thinker, he’s got a winning manner about him … and has enough force of personality to deal with various factions, like he did both in the Assembly and the Senate as minority leader.”

However, South said rebuilding the Republican Party in California may be out of reach for anyone.

“A political party is always just the sum of its parts,” South said. “The parts at this point don’t add up to much, and they certainly don’t add up to winning elections.”

Brulte, whose political base is in San Bernardino County, started as a young aide to U.S. Sen. S.I. Hayakawa in 1980 and had stints with the Republican National Committee, the defense and housing agencies in the Reagan administration and as an advance man for President George H. W. Bush before returning to California to work as a legislative aide.

He won an Assembly seat from Rancho Cucamonga in 1990 and served the full 14 years in the Assembly and Senate allowed under term limits, serving as GOP leader in each house.

Perhaps his most memorable political success came in 1994, when Republicans picked up eight Assembly seats under his stewardship and eventually briefly controlled the lower house.

Though Brulte is likely to easily win over Republican lawmakers and donors in his bid for the party chairmanship, he may have more difficulty courting the party’s volunteer class.

“Jim has an impossible task in my opinion, and I’m not opposed, by the way, to the idea of him running for chairman at all,” said Aaron Park, a Republican activist from Rocklin and conservative blogger. “But the problem is he’s got to try to sell activists on the fact that he really does care about us, as opposed to the interest of the legislators. They’re oftentimes at odds.”

The current chairman of the state Republican Party, Tom Del Beccaro, announced shortly before the election that he would not run again next year.

Del Beccaro was elected chairman in March 2010. The party was hampered by fundraising difficulties and internal disputes, and in the last election cycle many Republican donors bypassed the party infrastructure in their efforts to recruit and fund GOP candidates.

Del Beccaro said the party “cannot become more Sacramento-centric.” Asked if he was referring to Brulte, Del Beccaro said whoever succeeds him must “have a more than healthy plan for involving volunteers, not just Sacramento-area donors.”

Steven Baric, the party vice chairman, was initially expected to run to succeed Del Beccaro as the party’s leader. He said Wednesday that he has not decided if he will.

Reprinted from the Sacramento Bee (Dec. 6, 2012)