By Carla Marinucci and John Wildermuth
California Republicans watched their candidates for governor and other statewide offices get thrashed on election day, while both houses of the state Legislature remained in firm Democratic control — but out of the ashes of 2014, party activist say, may come a spark of hope.
Tuesday may go down as the day the GOP “stopped the bleeding” in deep-blue California, said Jason Scalese, who managed an unsuccessful state Senate race in the East Bay for Republican Peter Kuo.
He and other Republicans argue that amid the roster of defeats, there were strong signals of a turnaround for a party that has been increasingly irrelevant in California.
Republicans celebrated several victories in the Legislature that eliminated the Democrats’ supermajority in the Assembly and prevented them from regaining two-thirds control of the state Senate. Among the successful GOP candidates were several women and Asian Americans, two groups the party has struggled to win over in recent years.
Republicans were also on track to pick up three House seats in California, including one shocker in a Central Valley district where Democrats hold a 15-point voter registration edge.
“We’ve talked a lot about brand, and we’ve now broken through, in terms of who we are on the ground,’’ said former state party Chairman Duf Sundheim, a moderate who helped ensure the party had competitive candidates such as Pete Peterson running for secretary of state and Ashley Swearengin for controller.
Neither they nor gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari won Tuesday. But Sundheim said the defeated candidates did succeed in “laying a foundation” for rebuilding a party that now claims just 28 percent of registered voters in the state.
“This may not have been our year — but we’re clearly building the bench,” said Sue Caro, chairwoman of the party’s Alameda County chapter. She credited party Chairman Jim Brulte with focusing the party’s energy and money on legislative candidates, while expanding outreach to Asian Americans, Latinos and younger voters.
Bay Area Republicans were especially enthusiastic about the victory of attorney Catharine Baker in the 16th Assembly District in the East Bay. The pro-abortion-rights Republican defeated Democratic Dublin Mayor Tim Sbranti to become the Bay Area’s first GOP representative in Sacramento since 2008.
The lesson is “when you’re at the bottom, the only thing you do is push your way up — and going for individual races” over statewide contests “is effective,” said libertarian political commentator Patrick Dorinson.
The “building blocks” approach pushed by Brulte “brought up a bunch of women,” Dorinson said. “And that’s the strategy for Republicans in the rest of the country — find more women.”
Democrats watching the GOP wins say their party should take notice.
California Republicans “have been in investing in the farm team in local and state races, and we have not been doing that as much,’’ said Andrea Dew Steele, president and founder of EMERGE America, a Democratic group that trains women to run for office. “If you look at their candidates, there are a lot of women of color. They’re cluing in, and we should rise to the occasion.”
Caro said despite his loss, Kashkari, a 41-year-old with immigrant roots who favored same-sex marriage rights and women’s access to abortion, deserved credit for breaking the “old white men” Republican stereotype.
“To his credit, (Kashkari) started a conversation that Republicans will continue to have in several more cycles — and I emphasize several more,” said Bill Whalen, an adviser to former Gov. Pete Wilson and a fellow at the Hoover Institution.
“But here’s the problem — the California Republican Party can’t be changed overnight, or in one election,” Whalen said. “The Republicans tend to think it’s a problem of the right money and messenger, that one person can magically solve this.
“It’s a bigger problem — getting people to want to join the GOP,” he said.
Conservatives argue that the problem starts at the top. Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, the Tea Party favorite who narrowly lost to Kashkari in the June primary, said the dismal outcome at the top of the ticket bodes ill for the party.
On issues like immigration reform and gun control, Donnelly said, “the GOP base is tired of getting shot in the back by their own party.”
Donnelly said Republicans should be ashamed that they couldn’t take a single statewide office. Party leaders “controlled the strings and the money, and got a guy (running for governor) whom the base was not excited about,” he said. “And when he loses, they blame the base.”
Part of the problem is that the state’s geography and demographics are stacked against Republicans.
While losing in a landslide to Gov. Jerry Brown, Kashkari still nearly swept the interior of the state. Where he couldn’t make a dent was in the huge, Democratic-friendly population along the coast.
That won’t change anytime soon. And with growing numbers of young and ethnic voters supporting Democrats, Republicans face even more problems in presidential election years, when more of those voters turn out.
Still, GOP activists like Charles Munger Jr., who has invested $69.8 million in candidates and ballot measures to help his party in the past decade, says he’s convinced 2014 will be seen as the year the Republican slide ended.
If Republicans turn their focus from internal battles to addressing the real challenges — “what do the voters need, what do the voters want?” — Munger predicted that next time, they are “going to do just fine.”
Key GOP winners
Some of the Republicans who did well in California on Tuesday.
Republican dairy farmer Johnny Tacherra, who ran a shoestring campaign in a strongly Democratic district in the Central Valley, had a narrow lead over Democratic Rep. Jim Costa, who has represented the Fresno area in the Legislature and in Congress for more than 30 years.
Republican challenger Doug Ose held a lead of about 3,000 votes over freshman Democratic Rep. Ami Bera, with an estimated 60,000 votes remaining to be counted in a suburban Sacramento district.
In San Diego, gay Republican Carl DeMaio was poised to turn Democratic Rep. Scott Peters out of office.
In the East Bay, Republican attorney Catharine Baker defeated Democrat Tim Sbranti for an open Assembly seat.
Republican Ling-Ling Chang defeated Democrat Gregg Fritchle for an open Assembly seat representing parts of Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties. She becomes the first Taiwanese-born woman to win election to that house.
Republican Young Kim defeated Democratic Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva in an Assembly seat in Orange County.
In an Orange County race for an open state Senate seat, Republican Janet Nguyen, a former Vietnamese refugee, sailed to victory over Democrat Jose Solario.