At a grim convention, California GOP seeks to regroup after bruising recall defeat

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San Diego, CA - September 25: At the California Republicans Convention on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021 in San Diego, CA., Harmeet Dhillon answered audience questions from attendees during the panel discussion for "The National Debate over election integrity laws". Also on the panel were Fred Whitaker (seated) and Garrett Fahy (standing). (Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)
A panel of GOP lawyers said conspiracy theories about mail-in ballots suppressed the pro-recall vote. (Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

California Republicans, stinging from their lopsided loss in this month’s recall election, sought to regroup and focus on the upcoming midterms at their party convention this weekend.

Typically a boisterous gathering, the three-day meeting in San Diego was among the grimmest in recent memory.

“I've been wanting to tell people this is the ‘There's nowhere else to go but up convention,’” said Orange County delegate and former state GOP executive director Jon Fleischman, adding that he couldn’t because the party’s prospects could sink further because of the decennial redrawing of congressional districts currently underway.

The convention takes place less than two weeks after Gov. Gavin Newsom beat back an effort to recall him from office by 24 points. The recall election was the best chance for the GOP to win statewide office in more than a decade.

Yet there appeared to be little public introspection. Republican leaders pointed to the Democrats’ overwhelming advantage in voter registration and fundraising.

State Party Chair Jessica Millan Patterson said that while she was “super bummed” that the recall was not successful, the effort was a victory for the state GOP, including hiring staff and opening offices in key congressional and legislative districts around the state months ahead of schedule.

They forced Newsom on the defense, she said, pointing to anti-recall forces spending more than $80 million and bringing in heavyweight Democrats like President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris to push liberal voters to the polls.

“They had to come out guns blazing in order to save his job,” she said in an interview.

Critics noted that over one million fewer pro-recall voters turned out compared to the 6 million Californians who voted for President Trump in 2020.

“The million-dollar question is: How do you turn the ship around? Is it even worth it? Can you turn it around?” said Ray Perez, the vice chairman of the Yolo County GOP, who has been critical of state party leadership’s messaging and communications with voters. “We’re not going to win a gubernatorial seat overnight. Can we win things that are within reach, which is an assembly seat. … I honestly don’t know. I don’t think so, but I want to be wrong.”

A panel of GOP lawyers said conspiracy theories about mail-in ballots and rigged ballots suppressed the pro-recall vote.

“There are very good people who have surprisingly bought into that — my vote doesn’t count in California, so therefore I’m not going to vote,” said Fred Whitaker, chairman of the Orange County GOP, during a panel called “Jim Crow 2.0 or Common Sense: The National Debate Over Election Integrity Laws.” “In any sport, if you don’t go on the field, you will not win. And politics is a contact sport, it is a team sport and we have to have everybody voting.”

The lawyers did not mention names, but those theories were espoused by Trump as well as conservative talk radio host Larry Elder, who won the most votes among the replacement candidates in the Sept. 14 election.

Ashlee Titus
Ashlee Titus speaks at the panel discussion for "The National Debate over Election Integrity Laws." (Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Former Rep. Doug Ose was the only major GOP candidate who ran in the recall to appear publicly at the convention. He unsuccessfully pushed a proposal to not allow the state party to endorse candidates who have supported new taxes.

“I think the party is struggling with identifying for the voters what they stand for,” said Ose, who dropped out of the race in August after suffering a heart attack. He said he found it baffling that the party wouldn’t support his proposal. If the party fails to come together over this type of cohesive message, “it will continue to die.”

Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who was once largely viewed as the GOP’s best candidate for statewide office and received the support of 9% of voters, met privately with delegates.

He blamed the recall’s failure on the race ultimately becoming about “personalities,” an unnamed dig at Elder, rather than issues that are frustrating Californians on both sides of the aisle, such as homelessness, the cost of living and crime.

“I believe now more than ever that California needs a change, and that when you focus on the issues, you can win,” said Faulconer, who is pondering another run next year, in an interview. The final weeks of the recall election “didn't focus on the real issues that we're dealing with here in California, and all of those still remain.”

The rest of the field was notably absent.

“Recovering from the campaign in Key West, Florida,” Elder, who received the most votes among the recall candidates, tweeted from an oceanfront bar on Saturday.

Businessman John Cox, who lives nearby, also did not attend, nor did Assemblyman Kevin Kiley or Olympian-turned-reality television star Caitlyn Jenner.

Presidential hopefuls, who often speak at California GOP conventions to mingle with the state’s donors, were also absent. The bold-faced names at this weekend’s gathering were New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu and freshmen members of Congress Ronny Jackson of Texas and Burgess Owens of Utah.

Sununu, who is pondering a run against Sen. Maggie Hassan next year, offered advice to California Republicans on how to improve their prospects.

“Come up with your own brand,” he told about 150 delegates and guests during a Friday night dinner. “You can’t say, ‘We’re not Gavin, vote for us.’”

Charles Moran, a San Pedro delegate who works for the Log Cabin Republicans, said he was left waiting for guidance from GOP leaders and elected officials, many of whom did not attend the gathering.

“You’d think that there'd be a little bit more representation by the people who represent the state, and there is none. Does that mean that they think that it's not worth it, or that it's going to be a machete that they're walking into?” Moran said. “But either way I think people are here looking for some answers, and I'm not sure they're going to find them.”

New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu talks to GOP delegates
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu talks to GOP delegates Friday night in San Diego. (Seema Mehta / Los Angeles Times)

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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