SACRAMENTO (AP) — California Republicans began gathering for a round of soul-searching Friday at the start of their spring convention as they seek to restore the party's luster after years of election defeats.
The state GOP is in debt and lost seats in the state Legislature and California's congressional delegation in November. Democrats hold all statewide offices and won supermajorities in the Assembly and Senate last fall.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield joked that the good news for California Republicans is that they cannot get any lower. He urged Republicans to fundamentally restructure the party's operations, modeling the effort on President Barack Obama's re-election campaign last fall, which he called a "wake-up call to the California GOP."
"The political operation that this president has — communicating, identifying and data-mining — is by far superior to anything that Republicans have," McCarthy said during a gathering of the Sacramento Press Club. "And if there's a place that we should learn it, and if there's a place we should engage in it, and if there's a place we can apply it, it's right here in California."
He urged Republicans to deliver a message of optimism and "embrace a little bit of our libertarianism." If Republicans can turn around their fortunes in California, they can do it anywhere, he said.
Fewer than 30 percent of California voters are registered Republican, continuing a 20-year decline. The party has lost support among the fastest-growing segment of the electorate, Latino voters, who have shunned the GOP in California since 1994, when Gov. Pete Wilson championed Proposition 187.
That ballot initiative prohibited illegal immigrants from using public health care programs, education and a variety of social services. The law was later overturned by the courts but has left lingering resentment among Latinos.
Despite McCarthy's appeal to embrace libertarianism, there is little appetite among the party faithful to revisit the party's conservative platform, which includes opposition to gay marriage, abortion and universal health care. McCarthy said "California has spoken" on gay marriage, and he personally believes marriage should be between a man and a woman.
California voters banned gay marriage with the approval of Proposition 8 in 2008, and the U.S. Supreme Court will take up a challenge to the law later this month. A Field Poll released this week found that six in 10 Californians now say they approve of gay marriage, including 71 percent among those who are not affiliated with either of the two major political parties.
He was also asked to weigh in on legalization of marijuana, a topic he said draws more attention online than any other, even in the midst of an economic crisis. He said he does not believe legalizing marijuana is the answer, but he is open to discussions on changing current laws.
"I do think there's a role somewhere, though, that government should not be in every single part of our lives," McCarthy said. "And I think there's things that we can look at, things that we can talk about."
A slim majority of California voters also said they support allowing marijuana to be sold and taxed like alcohol, the Field Poll reported this week.
McCarthy, the House GOP whip, is among those who have tried to turn around his party's fortunes, with limited success. He leads the party's candidate-recruitment program and backed several candidates nationwide last November.
In California, a few of the candidates his group backed won election to the Legislature, but the party failed in its attempt to unseat Democratic Rep. Jerry McNerney despite heavy spending.
He said he believes his group laid the foundation for future success and that 2012 was not the year they could win, given Obama's massive campaign infrastructure nationwide. McCarthy said that helped Democratic candidates at all levels.
Delegates at the party's weekend convention in the state capital also will hear from Republican strategist Karl Rove before they are expected to elect former Senate Minority Leader Jim Brulte as their new chairman. Brulte, of Rancho Cucamonga, has said the party is deeply in debt and that he wants to fix its organizational problems before taking on its messaging.
Brulte said the party needs to recruit, train and provide whatever technical resources it can afford to help Republican candidates running at all levels of office.
"I want to be the most boring Republican Party chairman in the history of California. I want to focus on nuts and bolts. It's not glamorous, it's not exciting, it's just necessary," he said in an interview with The Associated Press last month.
Brulte and other Republicans want to focus on what they call the GOP's core values, which they say align closely with those of the state's growing ethnic populations.