BURBANK (AP) — With November elections approaching, the California Republican Party is in trouble, struggling to pay its bills and hold its ground in a state that has been growing increasingly favorable for Democratic candidates.
At a low-key meeting of party members and activists Saturday, even state Chairman Tom Del Beccaro remarked at one point, “We like this underdog thing.”
Short on cash and in danger of slipping below 30 percent of the statewide registration, the once-imposing state party is facing the possibility of losing seats in the Legislature, particularly the Senate, and in Congress. The party nominated a virtually unknown candidate to challenge U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and Mitt Romney has shown no signs he intends to contest the nation’s most populous state, where President Barack Obama rolled up a 24-point margin over rival John McCain in 2008.
On the day Romney added Rep. Paul Ryan to the Republican presidential ticket, the only visible sign of the campaign at Saturday’s state party meeting in Burbank was a few lapel buttons and T-shirts for sale in the lobby. When asked why the campaign did not send a surrogate to speak on Romney’s behalf, Del Beccaro said, “This is a working convention for us — it’s workshop heavy.”
California counted more registered Republicans in 1988 than it does today, even though the state population has grown since that time by about 10 million. Democrats hold every statewide office and the two U.S. Senate seat, and they control both chambers in the Legislature.
Democrats hold a 2.2 million voter edge over Republicans in the state. Independents now outnumber Republicans in about a dozen congressional districts.
The GOP remains strong in some regional areas, and its candidates are threatening Democrats in several congressional contests. New district boundaries drawn by an independent commission — a power once held by state lawmakers and party insiders — opened the way for competitive contests.
In a swing district in the Central Valley, the 9th Congressional District, Ivy League-educated law student Ricky Gill is in a tight race with the Democratic incumbent, Rep. Jerry McNerney. In the narrowly divided 10th Congressional District in central California, Republican Rep. Jeff Denham is locked in a competitive race with former astronaut Jose Hernandez, a Democrat.
But the Republicans’ challenges statewide are perhaps no better illustrated than in Elizabeth Emken, an autism activist who is challenging Feinstein.
Emken is in her first run for statewide office and has struggled to raise funds. She finished last among four candidates in her only previous campaign, a congressional primary in 2010.
At the Burbank meeting, she acknowledged even fellow Republicans might not know anything about her. She pleaded with party members for donations while depicting the incumbents as vulnerable, out of date and out of touch.
Emken never mentioned the incumbent’s age — Feinstein is 79 — but said “there is nothing modern about her.”
Feinstein consultant Bill Carrick called Emken a “rhetorical joke” and said Feinstein has no intention of debating her, despite requests from Emken for a series of face-offs. “She is not a serious candidate in terms of her credentials or her experience,” Carrick said.
In a statement, Emken praised Romney’s vice presidential pick, saying “I have always been impressed by Ryan’s fiscal discipline and his vision for solving our most challenging problems.”
The party’s struggles in California contrast with other states, where the GOP is thriving. In 2010, Republicans notched big victories in Congress, governor’s offices and statehouses around the nation, but California Democrats made a clean sweep of statewide contests and padded their majority in the Legislature.
Conservative positions on immigration and social issues have long made it difficult for GOP candidates in California to lure middle-ground voters, polling suggests. However, many party leaders say that the GOP can be energized by hewing to conservative principles, not straying from them.
When he was in office, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger warned state Republicans that they were in for a future of disappointment unless they shifted to the political center, seizing issues usually associated with the Democrats, including climate change and health care reform.
“We are dying at the box office,” he said.
Party leaders say finances can improve quickly, and so-called super PACs have been funneling money into state races.
However, recent government filings suggest the state GOP is virtually broke. Del Beccaro, when asked how he intended to resolves the party’s financial problems, said “we need to raise more money.”
(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)