The contours of the 2014 race for governor sharpened Saturday as two Republicans vying to unseat incumbent Jerry Brown staked out positions that exposed rifts within the party as it tries to reverse two decades of decline in California.
Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, a former Minuteman border patrol leader, emerged as the tea party favorite, touting his candidacy through a bullhorn outside an Anaheim hotel where hundreds of Republicans convened for a state party convention.
Donnelly, a state assemblyman from the Lake Arrowhead area, whose stands on immigration, abortion and same-sex marriage resonate with conservatives, pounded Brown for "oppressive taxes."
"I have one last thing to say to Jerry Brown: He better keep his hands off our guns," Donnelly warned shortly before rousing a standing-room-only tea party gathering inside.
In remarks to party loyalists, Republican rival Abel Maldonado, a former lieutenant governor, stayed mute on his support for same-sex marriage, abortion rights and a path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally.
Those breaches from ideological purity have left Maldonado unpopular among the avid conservatives who dominate party conventions. His remorse for a decisive 2009 vote in the state Senate to raise taxes has done little good. Tea party leader Mark Meckler got cheers when he branded Maldonado "a traitor."
In remarks to a few dozen supporters, Maldonado cast himself as a fighter for "the little guy" and mocked the Democratic governor for suggesting things were getting better in California.
"They're not better for the people that are making the beds here at the Hilton hotel," he said. "I know that for a fact, because I asked them this morning."
The party fracture in Anaheim reflects the larger split among Republicans as they grapple with the rapid demographic shifts that have undermined the party in California, where growing Latino and Asian populations strongly favor Democrats. Republicans now routinely fall more than 1 million votes short in races on the statewide ballot (U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein finished more than 3 million votes ahead of her GOP challenger in 2010).
It also comes amid the federal government shutdown, with Republicans in Congress demanding the repeal of Obamacare, a program backed in California by roughly two-thirds of Latinos and 63% of Asians, according to an August survey by the Field Poll.
Garry South, a Democratic strategist invited by state GOP leaders in March to brief them on their demographic challenges, called the Republican battle to kill Obamacare an "insane" pursuit at a time when the party is trying to expand its reach.
"They have a problem where the cats don't like the cat food," he said. "Their brand has been completely sullied here."
Ruben Barrales, president of Grow Elect, a group formed to help Latino Republicans campaign for local office, said the party should follow the lead of Pope Francis, who suggested last month that the Roman Catholic Church focus less on contraception, abortion and homosexuality.
"We're not going to change what we believe in, our core principles," Barrales said. "But you know what? Even the pope is talking about there are certain things we have to emphasize."
Maldonado, a Santa Maria rancher, said in an interview that his Mexican ancestry would help him bounce Brown from office and increase prospects for other Republicans on the 2014 ballot.
"I think having a person that looks like me at the top of the ticket — that looks like California — is going to be good for the Republican Party," Maldonado said as six top advisors, all white men, listened from spots around his hotel suite.
Maldonado finished 1.1 million voters behind Democratic rival Gavin Newsom in the 2010 race for lieutenant governor. The Republican slate also included three women and an African American, but each of them also fell more than 1 million votes shy of victory.
Money will pose a big challenge for Maldonado. His most recent finance statement showed his campaign just over $3,000 in debt at the end of June, even after raising more than $300,000. With just over $27,000, Donnelly was not in much better shape. Brown, by contrast, reported $10 million in the bank.
Brown has sought to maximize his edge among Latinos. On Thursday, he staged elaborate ceremonies for TV news cameras in Los Angeles and Fresno for his signing of a bill to grant driver's licenses to immigrants in the country illegally. (Maldonado backs it; Donnelly does not.)
On Saturday, Brown announced his approval of eight more immigration bills, including one enabling authorities to file criminal extortion charges against anyone who threatens to report an immigrant's illegal status to the government.
Brown's political advisors also taunted Maldonado on Twitter, saying the Republican had backed Proposition 187, the 1994 ballot measure that sought to crack down on illegal immigration. They cited a 1998 Associated Press report quoting Maldonado as saying he voted for Proposition 187.
In an interview, Maldonado denied telling AP that he backed the measure and said he neglected to request a correction.
"My dog ate my homework," Brown advisor Ace Smith responded. "This is nonsense."
Republican support for Proposition 187 triggered a Latino backlash that has endured for nearly two decades. Jim Brulte, the state Republican chairman, said he was optimistic about a comeback for the state party, pointing to a recent state Senate victory in the Central Valley and a push to build a "farm team" of Republicans in local offices.
"Anything can happen," Brulte said. "I believe that in order to do the impossible, you have to be able to see the invisible."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun