California GOP gathers to chart a course after 2018 defeats

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — The 2018 election left California Republicans in dismal shape, with no statewide officeholders, just seven of 53 U.S. House seats, less than a quarter of all state legislative seats and third-place status in voter registration behind independents and Democrats.

Now the party faithful are gathering to decide who among three candidates should lead the state GOP into 2020 as President Donald Trump seeks re-election but is a virtual lock to suffer another blowout loss in California.

"2018 brought the party to the brink of extinction, and 2019 has to be about finding a path back to relevance in the Trump era and beyond," said Thad Kousser, a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego.

More than 1,300 delegates will gather in Sacramento starting Friday for a three-day weekend featuring appearances by U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer. The weekend culminates with Sunday's vote for chairman.

The candidates are Jessica Patterson, who runs a candidate recruitment and training program; Travis Allen, a former state assemblyman and unsuccessful 2018 gubernatorial candidate; and Steve Frank, a longtime party activist. All three advocate a back-to-basics focus on voter registration and fundraising.

They differ on Trump.

Allen and Frank want to lean in to the president's messaging; Patterson would prefer to focus on local issues rather than the White House.

"It's about time we have a Republican Party that stands for our values, our ideals and supports our Republican president." said Allen, who argues too many of the party's candidates have become "Republican-lite," meaning they don't fully embrace a conservative agenda.

Patterson's take: "We are not looking to nationalize our message here in California. We're going to be super-focused on talking about issues that are important to Californians."

Patterson, who is Latina, said Republicans should center their message on failures of Democrats in Sacramento, citing high housing costs and poorly performing schools. The party, she said, must make its point with "new messengers" in "new communities."

While her rivals have painted her as the candidate of the "Never Trump" wing of the party, Patterson has a mix of endorsements including U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield and Republican National Committee member Harmeet Dhillon, both Trump backers, as well as state Assemblyman Chad Mayes, who leads a group of anti-Trump Republicans advocating for more bipartisanship. She says she supports the president.

"I don't believe that there's an us versus them; we are all Republicans," she said.

Dhillon, who called herself "the biggest supporter of the administration there can be," said Patterson is the candidate best equipped to raise money and do the grunt work expected of a party chair.

"There's a bumper sticker approach and then there's a white paper approach," she said. "The bumper sticker approach is 'MAGA, Trump,' end, period. That's not a way to run a party, that's not what the state party is about."

Still, Allen and Frank argue that a Patterson chairmanship will be more of the same approach that's decimated the party. They announced Thursday they'll join forces if no one wins on the first ballot, with whoever gets the fewest delegates throwing their support to the other. They've dubbed their move the "resistance," a twist on the term coined by Democrats in opposition to Trump.

"We both believe in RESISTANCE to the continued ruling of our Party by consultants and special interests that have used the Party and driven it into the ground," they wrote in a joint email to delegates and the press. While Patterson has locked up most elected officials, Allen has the support of many county parties. Kelli Ward, the chairwoman of the Arizona Republican Party who unsuccessfully challenged former U.S. Sen. John McCain, is also behind him.

Allen's full-throated support of Trump is slightly ironic. Last year the president endorsed Allen's GOP opponent, John Cox, just before the primary and Cox advanced to the general election, where he was swamped by Democrat Gavin Newsom.

Beyond embracing Trump, Allen argues he's well-positioned to raise money and would seek $10 monthly contributions from 100,000 California Republicans. He wants to bring voter registration efforts back under the wing of the party after several years of outsourcing to a group called the Golden State Voter Participation Program. Current party Chairman Jim Brulte argues that's made it easier to raise and spend money, but Allen said the group let Republicans slide into third-party status.

Frank, meanwhile, said he'd push to undo California's top-two primary system that's put all candidates on the same ballot regardless of party. It's allowed Democrats to hold both slots in the past two general elections for U.S. Senate and many legislative races.

Dan Schnur, who was spokesman for former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and recently left the Republican Party and became an independent, said regardless of who wins the party isn't doing what it needs to do to regain relevance in a state where Trump is deeply unpopular.

"The decision that California Republicans are going to make this weekend is to embrace Trump loudly or to embrace him quietly," he said.

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