Tim Donnelly

Republican candidate for governor Tim Donnelly, third from left, makes a campaign stop in Watsonville, Calif., this year. Donnelly made waves this week when a video came to light of a 2006 speech in which he said illegal immigration would lead to a fight comparable to the Civil War. (Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times / February 6, 2014)

As Republicans seek to improve their standing among Latinos and women, fresh controversies in California could further damage the party with both groups.

On Monday, a GOP gubernatorial candidate's inflammatory rhetoric likening illegal immigration to war came to light. The previous day, a conservative website on California politics was launched, featuring a raunchy photo-shopped image of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — a depiction that prompted the most powerful Republican congressman from California to remove his column from the site.

The trouble came as the state Republican Party has been trying to claw its way back to relevance, with GOP voter registration in California at a historic low and every statewide office held by Democrats.

At the California Republican Party's recent convention, attention was showered on a new class of candidate that included many women and minorities. The grooming of a diverse bench, party leaders said, was key to the rebound effort.

The party has long argued that its problems with Latinos and women were caused by tone, not policy. And on Tuesday, some Republicans warned that the fallout from the latest uproar — notably from remarks by GOP Assemblyman and gubernatorial candidate Tim Donnelly — could be devastating.

"I am just appalled," said Rosario Marin, a Latina from Huntington Park who served as U.S. Treasurer under President George W. Bush. She has endorsed Donnelly's main GOP rival, former U.S. Treasury official Neel Kashkari.

"It's an embarrassment not only to himself but to the party and the efforts I am involved in at the national level … to elect Latino Republicans," she said. "This … makes my job that much more difficult."

Republicans have struggled with Latinos and women both nationally and statewide.

In the aftermath of the party's 2012 presidential loss, a scathing self-autopsy found that broadening the GOP's appeal was critical to its future, and national leaders invested $10 million in outreach efforts, including in California.

Latino voters in this state increasingly joined the Democratic Party after voters passed Proposition 187. That 1994 ballot measure, championed by then-Gov. Pete Wilson, denied taxpayer-funded services to illegal immigrants (it was later gutted in court).

And women voters here have been moved by the same social issues that have driven them away from the GOP elsewhere.

In California in 2012, although President Obama won the state by 23 points, he won women by 30 and Latinos by 45, according to exit polls. In 2010, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown beat Republican Meg Whitman by 13 points, but won women by 17 points and Latinos by 33 points, exit polls showed.

"Look, we're already down to 29% registration statewide," said Reed Galen, a GOP strategist in Orange County who also worked for Bush. "If we want that number to grow, we have to find ways to talk to Latinos about the issues we all care about."

Donnelly, the GOP front-runner according to public opinion polls, has stood by his 2006 speech, delivered when he was leader in the volunteer Minuteman border-patrol organization. In it, he said illegal immigration would lead to a fight comparable to the Civil War.

In the address, delivered at a rally in Temecula, he used Alamo imagery and said criminal gang members in the U.S. illegally amounted to an insurgency. He exhorted his audience of about 200 people to rise and join his fight to stop illegal border crossings.

"I am not backing away from the fact that we are in a war," Donnelly told reporters in Sacramento on Tuesday, after reports of the speech caused an outcry. He said he did not believe the remarks would hurt his prospects among Latino voters.

Kashkari and a handful of Republican officials criticized the lawmaker's sentiments.

"Once again Assemblyman Donnelly's comments are outrageous and divisive," Kashkari said in a statement. "This is not who we are as Republicans and is not who we are as Californians."

Connie Conway, leader of the Assembly's Republican caucus — Donnelly's nominal boss in the Legislature — also chastised him.

"Mr. Donnelly's opinions are his and his alone and are not representative of the Republicans in this [Capitol] building," she said in a statement to The Times.