BURLINGAME (CBS / AP) — California Republicans are bracing for what could be a brutal election year, but they’re also looking to the future.
With the party’s voter registration continuing to fall, Republicans face redrawn electoral districts this year that are likely to further weaken their status in the state Legislature and could lead to less clout in Congress.
Even so, the party is aiming to put on a positive face at its spring convention this weekend in Burlingame, where communicating its principles and reaching out to new voters will be the official focus. Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich is scheduled to be the headline attraction on Saturday, along with former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
After losing the race for California governor and all other statewide offices in 2010, the Republican Party’s fortunes fell further in 2011 when an independent commission created new electoral maps that reduced the number of districts in which Republicans are favored in the state Senate, Assembly and Congress.
Party officials invested months of energy on a costly lawsuit asking the state Supreme Court to overturn the new maps that were drawn by a voter-approved commission that the party once backed. The state Republican party also has spent more than $2.3 million on an initiative campaign asking voters to overturn the maps, which is expected to qualify soon for the November ballot.
Critics within the party say that money would have been better spent helping candidates in districts expected to have close races or registering new voters.
Party Chairman Tom Del Beccaro, who took over the top post last year, remains undaunted. He said he is focusing on the fundamentals, including voter registration, communication with voters and building support teams in communities throughout the state.
“From day one, if you remember, I said the party needed to start talking to the majority of Californians, not just to their own, so this is just a continuation of that process,” he said. “I think we’ve laid the groundwork for improving our standing in the state, but it’s a long journey for us. It’s going to be a long journey for the party because we didn’t emphasize the fundamentals of party-building enough over the last decade.”
Republicans now make up just 30 percent of registered California voters, while Democrats have nearly 44 percent. More than 21 percent of voters now say they have no party preference—up 5 percentage points from 2003, when Republican registration was about 5 percentage points higher and Democrats were around the same as they are now.
This weekend’s meeting will feature three town halls showcasing demographic groups the party has historically overlooked but now hopes to appeal to: Asian-Americans, Hispanics and young voters.
Ricky Gill, a 24-year-old Indian-American who is challenging Democratic incumbent Jerry McNerney in a San Joaquin Valley congressional seat, will be a featured speaker at the young voters forum on Saturday.
In recent years, California Republican Party conventions also have been marked by internal political feuds, as party moderates have challenged conservatives to be more pragmatic.
Del Beccaro declined to say whether he’s deliberately trying to keep the spotlight off divisive social issues such as abortion and gay marriage at the Friday-to-Sunday gathering. Instead, he said Republicans are focusing on the economy, their support for a state spending cap and California’s $9.2 billion budget deficit.
“There’s nothing about me that lives in the negative,” he said. “I’m doing things because I want to, not because I’m afraid of what else is going on.”
Still, party delegates are scheduled to vote on a new platform that would continue the GOP’s movement to the right by drawing attention to exactly those issues.
It emphasizes free enterprise economics, traditional marriage, two-parent families, opposition to abortion and ending California’s practice of providing election ballots in multiple languages.
“We believe public policy and education should not be exploited to present or teach homosexuality as an acceptable ‘alternative’ lifestyle. We oppose same-sex partner benefits, child custody, and adoption,” reads one of the sections.
Republicans in the Legislature opposed a bill that was passed last year and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown requiring public schools to include the contributions of gays and lesbians in social studies lessons.
Gingrich is the only presidential hopeful scheduled to address the gathering. Pawlenty, a former candidate for the nomination who now supports Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, also is among the speakers, along with Reince Preibus, chairman of the Republican National Committee.
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