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On Friday, Leonard Bernal stood beside a friend amid a sea of MAGA paraphernalia and was absolutely buzzing.
Former President Trump had just wrapped up a fiery speech to 1,500 paying attendees at the California Republican Party's fall convention in Anaheim, where he spent the better part of 90 minutes trashing the Golden State, its politicians and its policies.
Bernal, a 62-year-old Modesto retiree, loved every moment of it. Even if Trump was hard to follow as he lambasted the state's water policies, Bernal said the former president's speech resonated with him — he's watched farmers struggle to keep their land fertile. Trump spoke of marauding criminal gangs and called California a "dumping ground" for prisoners, terrorists and mental patients.
"The state deserves to be bashed," Bernal said. "Even though the country has gone to hell, California has gone into a deeper hell."
Trump was not alone in flaying California. In the course of trying to loosen Trump's grip on Republican voters, rival GOP candidates including Sen. Tim Scott and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis did the same during their swings through the state, castigating the state as a hellhole created by the far left and overwhelmed by homelessness and immigrants who entered the country illegally.
"Growing up in Florida I never remembered seeing a single California license plate in my life," DeSantis told the audience Friday night. "I never met anybody who had moved from California to Florida. Fast forward 15 years later, and I become governor and all of a sudden we see a sea of California license plates in the state of Florida."
All the while, and usually behind closed doors, the candidates held fundraisers at the homes of wealthy Californians. The state has long been a popular destination for Republican presidential contenders looking to raise cash. In 2020, Californians donated more than $92 million to Trump's campaign and to super PACs and other groups that supported his unsuccessful reelection effort, according to the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics.
Of the $20 million DeSantis' campaign raised this year since he entered the race in May, about $2.1 million came from California residents, according to campaign finance disclosures through June.
Polls show Trump so far ahead, he could, because of a recent rules change, end up winning all of the state's delegates and clinch the nomination in California's March presidential primary. Trump enjoys about 55% support of likely Republican voters in the state, according to a recent UC Berkeley/L.A. Times poll.
During his midday speech Friday, Trump falsely claimed that the state can "take children away from their parents and sterilize them." Echoing frequent attacks he made during his presidency, Trump also spoke of rampant crime and said brazen thieves stealing from stores should be shot on sight. He advocated for energy independence and promised to cut federal funding for schools with vaccination mandates.
"Under the Trump administration we will bring back law and order to California," he said.
Despite his large lead in recent surveys, an effort to have the California Republican Party officially endorse Trump failed Sunday, after impassioned speakers made the case that an endorsement — unprecedented this early in a presidential primary campaign — could affect voter turnout for down-ballot races.
“Frankly, we have some Republicans who want other people other than President Trump. We need them all there,” said Fred Whitaker, chairman of the Republican Party of Orange County.
Broadly speaking though, delegates attending the three-day confab said the state had lost its way and many wanted California to return to the days of the past.
Some craved more economic opportunity and affordable living, while others expressed frustration about transgender athletes or school districts that decline to notify parents when their child identifies as transgender.
An upstart campaign to make California's Republican Party more welcoming to a broader spectrum of views on abortion and LGBTQ+ issues failed by a large margin Saturday.
The convention overwhelmingly supported adopting its traditional platform, following a contentious weekend-long discussion over a proposal to remove language from the party platform explicitly opposing abortion and defining marriage as “between one man and one woman.”
Loud cheering accompanied the platform vote, which passed with 79%.
Committee members tasked with reforming the party platform proposed the change over the summer, appalling many conservative members. Outside the hotel ballroom where the platform was discussed, activists held signs that read, “Pray to end abortion” and “God is pro-life.”
“I don’t believe in the big tent. I believe in a tent that will house like-minded people,” GOP delegate and Paso Robles resident Randall Jordan said of the changes to the platform, the push to make the GOP more inclusive and the state's increasingly liberal tilt. "When Trump attacks the state, I hear hope. I hear hope that someone actually is going to do something."
For lifelong Californians Guadalupe and Hilario Gonzales, anti-California rhetoric from the presidential candidates felt validating. Guadalupe Gonzales, who attended Trump’s speech at the Anaheim convention Friday, said his gripes about how the state has handled drought, wildfires, crime and immigration resonated with her own beliefs.
“I was like, ‘Yes, you hear me!’ Because we’re hurting,” she said.
The couple didn’t seem to mind the widespread California-bashing they heard at the weekend convention.
“We're a little bit embarrassed when we go to other states because they go, ‘Oh, you're from California,’” Guadalupe Gonzales said. “Because they think we're nuts!”
Like Trump and Scott, DeSantis has hosted multiple fundraisers — including one in Salinas last week — since the campaign started. At the convention, at a campaign stop in Long Beach and at Wednesday's presidential debate in Simi Valley, the Florida governor's message across the state was that California was adrift and Florida represented a path forward.
But before DeSantis unloaded on California during his convention speech Friday night, he spoke about returning from military duty to Coronado Island in San Diego and marveling at the state's natural beauty and "just having the freshness of the Pacific Ocean within you." He also highlighted his televised debate with Gov. Gavin Newsom next month, which he has said will show Americans the clear difference between states run by Republicans and Democrats.
"California is really the petri dish for American liberalism and American leftism," DeSantis said. "What Biden is doing are things that California was doing many years ago. What California is doing now is likely what a second Biden term would do, or God forbid Kamala Harris, or God forbid Newsom himself, who knows, right?"
He touted his fights with Disney and waded into the school district controversies over policies affecting transgender students, saying, "It's wrong to tell a second-grader that their gender is a choice. It's not true and it's inappropriate."
Lines like this from DeSantis, Scott and Trump drew rapturous applause from attendees at these speeches who paid hundreds of dollars to be in close proximity to the candidates. DeSantis and Trump both ripped into Newsom — who has emerged as President Biden’s chief defender and leader of the Democratic offense this reelection season.
The California governor attended the GOP debate Wednesday as a Biden proxy and to forcefully rebut the Republican attacks on the state and the president.
"It's so dull and so predictable. There's this lack of originality in all this California bashing," Newsom told reporters before the debate, adding that GDP growth in the state over the last 10 years has outpaced the nation.
"We just dominate in every category — hunting jobs, fishing jobs, manufacturing jobs — more factory jobs here than any other state by a factor of larger than the next five states combined. I'm really proud of the state," he said.
Somewhat surprisingly, presidential candidate and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy spent little time trashing the state or even really talking about it at all during his speech Saturday. Asked why, he told reporters that despite real problems here, this type of rhetoric bored him.
"I am sick and tired of lazily just bashing" the place, Ramaswamy said. "It's too easy."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.