BURLINGAME (AP) — California Republicans must stay focused on economic issues to win over voters who are skeptical of the party, Republican Party Chairman Tom Del Beccaro said Friday as he outlined his efforts to rebrand the damaged GOP name in the state.
Since taking the helm of the party last year, Del Beccaro has held town hall meetings with Hispanic voters and is trying to keep Republican candidates focused on issues such as state spending that he says will help them win elections this year.
It's a tough sell for an electorate that has increasingly spurned the party over the past decade. Republicans have no statewide officeholders and are a minority in both houses of the Legislature, where their primary role has been reduced to rejecting the state budget and tax increases, which require a two-thirds majority to pass.
That's led to an image that the California GOP is the "party of no," Del Beccaro said during a news conference to kick off the party's statewide convention this weekend in Burlingame.
"Parties become more attractive when they have positive agendas," he said.
He wants legislative, statewide and congressional candidates to concentrate on fiscal issues, on which Del Beccaro said voters often agree with the Republican agenda. That includes a statewide spending cap that conservative interest groups hope to get on the ballot in November.
"If we drive out voters because we have a positive agenda to vote for something that they like, that will carry over up and down the ticket. The problem in the past is the Republicans have self-divided on the issues and not run statewide themes," Del Beccaro said.
Democratic Party Chairman John Burton disagreed with the idea that voters side with Republicans on state spending, noting that recent polls have shown more than 50 percent support for three competing ballot initiatives to raise taxes to help solve the state's $9.2 billion budget shortfall.
"The Republicans are totally out of touch with the thinking in California," Burton said. "They don't lose elections because the people agree with them on the issues."
The tax measures, one of which is backed by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, would give Republicans another issue to rally around and provide a sharp contrast with Democrats next fall.
At the same time, Del Beccaro also wants candidates to talk less about divisive social issues that have dominated recent discussion in the contested GOP presidential nomination. He also said he hopes the convention will start to put a fresh face on the GOP, showcasing the Asian, Hispanic and young voters the party needs to survive.
Del Beccaro said his meetings around the state are an effort to directly communicate with voters rather than have the party's agenda filtered through news media or third parties.
Still, he acknowledged that the party has not done a good job of translating support for its principles to votes at the ballot box. Independents now account for 21 percent of the electorate and have continued to climb as GOP registration has slipped and Democratic registration has held steady.
"What's going to bring this party back is a direct message of practical solutions to their lives. Independents rise and fall on whether the major parties are providing solutions," Del Beccaro said.
Democrats are hoping to win a two-thirds majority in the state Senate thanks to districts drawn for the first time by an independent commission. A lawsuit challenging the districts filed by top party supporters was rejected by the state Supreme Court, but the party has spent more than $2 million gathering signatures for a referendum asking voters to overturn the Senate districts next November. That measure qualified for the ballot late Friday.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is among the Republican presidential hopefuls, will speak to delegates Saturday and will be joined by former candidate and pizza magnate Herman Cain.
The other nationally known Republican scheduled to speak over the weekend is former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a one-time candidate for the nomination who now supports former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
The drawn-out Republican primary race could make California influential in the GOP nominating contest for the first time in decades, Del Beccaro said. He said that could be a boon for California candidates and issues, which could benefit from increased attention on the state, which holds its primary June 5.
"Normally we're the ATM of the political world and money tends to flow out of California to invest in the presidential cycle," he said.