They call it a party, though there’s no music or dancing. But there’s plenty of politics in the air to liven up the rectangular, windowless room—with free drinks from an open bar to help loosen the lips.
Saturday night has arrived at the California Republican Party’s fall convention, which took place last month at Anaheim Marriott. The Saturday shindig put on by the Bay Area GOP will feature an announcement about the state party’s preliminary 2015 platform, which will be ratified by a vote the next morning.
Luis Buhler, publisher ofBayAreaGOP.comand former vice chair of the Bay Area GOP, delivers the tentative platform to the room.
Things get interesting when the platform’s “equal opportunity” wording comes up.
“The platform committee added language opposing discrimination in housing on the basis of sexual orientation,” Buhler says.
A sudden interruption rings out: “BOOOO!”
Everyone turns to a smug, clean-cut young man sitting in a chair with his arms crossed.
He makes no effort to stand. “BOOO!” he repeats.
Buhler continues, acting unflapped: “That is, by the way, the law of California,” before attempting to move on to other platform details.
But there it is again: “BOO!”
The man, dressed in a sport coat, remains hunkered in his seat.
Buhler persists: “So our platform now is in compliance with the law.”
A few minutes later, immigration comes up.
“The immigration section was clearly the most controversial,” Buhler says. “In total, (it) takes some very conservative, traditional positions of the Republican Party.”
The young Republican regains his voice.
Another smartly dressed man approaches the heckler from behind, taps him on the shoulder and says, “You need to be respectful.”
All eyes go back to Buhler, but seconds later, the heckler erupts. “Really? Really? I’ll leave, I don’t need security.”
As he walks out he says, “Bye! Go be Democrats!”
A man near the door gives the heckler a piece of his mind. “Where’s your bed?” he says, seemingly suggesting the heckler is a child, or too drunk—or both.
Leaving the room, the heckler turns.
“Liberals!” he yells.
Buhler, meanwhile, has never stopped talking: “… but it does call for language, English and English only, as the language of government.”
The man appears in another doorway to the room.
En route to the convention via Interstate 5, the only English-language radio station coming through in the Central Valley is KSFO 560AM. On it, conservative talk show host Mark Levin rails for more than an hour against the media’s handling of the second Republican presidential debate, which occurred a day earlier.
He calls it a food fight, and picks on the media—both CNN and Fox News before it—for using their debates to create theatrical conflict amid candidates to boost ratings.
Levin wants substance.
The point resurfaces the next morning, after the conference begins. Tom Palzer, who’s running a campaign for U.S. Senate against more well-funded, white male candidates, approaches for a chat and ends up riffing about the media.
“When you’re running for office, you’re running against your own party; you’re running against the other party; you’re running against the independents; you’re running against the media,” he says. “The media is always waiting to chop your head off.”
For as much as GOP presidential candidates love California for fundraising purposes—it’s the richest state in the union—they often appear otherwise indifferent to California, and for good reason: Its voters haven’t supported a Republican candidate since George H.W. Bush in 1988, more than a quarter-century ago.
With 16 candidates vying for the 2016 Republican nomination, only the dregs of the current campaign—Scott Walker and Mike Huckabee—agreed to speak at California GOP’s Sept. 18-20 convention. But on Sept. 13, Walker’s campaign announced that, due to flagging poll numbers, he would not appear and instead would attempt to shore up support in South Carolina and Iowa, two states critical to securing the nomination. (Walker pulled out of the race altogether Sept. 23).
So Huckabee became the sole headliner, slated for the Friday VIP luncheon.
As the attendees munch on their salads, the room goes dark, and two giant screens light up on the left and right behind the stage.
“Every day of my life in politics was a fight; sometimes, it was an intense one,” Huckabee tells the camera, referring to his long odds in succeeding politically in Arkansas, a longtime Democratic stronghold. “But any drunken redneck can walk into a bar and start a fight. But a leader only starts a fight that he is prepared to finish.”
The three-minute film featured Huckabee’s wife, Janet, who praised him for sticking by her side after she was diagnosed with cancer early in their marriage.
When the lights come back on, California Republican Party Chairman Jim Brulte takes the stage to introduce the former Arkansas governor, calling him “one of the best governors in America.” After Huckabee takes the stage to a standing ovation, he immediately starts digging into the Sept. 16 debate, where he was given little time to speak—and when he did speak, he foundered. (One thing he said during the debate: “The most dangerous person in any room is the person who doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.”)
“I’m excited to be here for several reasons, not the least of which I’ve been allocated three times more time than I got in three hours of the CNN debate,” Huckabee says. “I told Bill O’Reilly last night: I wasn’t sure if I was in the CNN debate, or if I was standing in line at the DMV. Insufferably, a three-hour tour. I thought I was in an episode of Gilligan’s Island, and we got shipwrecked out there. I kept looking around for Ginger and Mary Ann.
“The essence of the questions was intended to try to get us all to fight with each other,” he says. “I, for one, as a Republican, say it’s time we say to the networks: The purpose of a Republican debate is not to create fodder for your entertainment value.”
The debate, Huckabee says, should be about deciding which candidate can not just get to the Super Bowl, but win it.
“I’m also delighted to be able to spend these few minutes with you, because I do believe we have an incredible opportunity to get America going again. There are a lot of reasons for us to be disturbed, disgusted, even outraged at what’s happening in our country,” he says.
“I understand there is more than just a little bit of dissatisfaction with the way our country is going. It’s better described as a seething rage. People are not just unhappy; they are outraged, to the point that in some cases they don’t really care if they elect somebody who has any understanding of what it means to govern.
“Here’s the truth: Why am I running for president? Because I have five grandkids now. And I feel so blessed to be an American. I haven’t just read about the American Dream; I have lived it. And I for one am not willing to walk my grandchildren through the charred remains of a once-great country called America and say, ‘Here it is, kids.’”
The ballroom erupts with applause.
John Myers, senior editor of KQED’s California politics and government desk, stands in front of a camera in the Anaheim Marriott’s convention area hall, poised to deliver a sound bite on the health of the Republican Party in California.
“Set aside all of the spin and the bluster that comes with politics: The challenges of the California Republican Party are ones of numbers. There are about 4.9 million registered Republicans in the state; that’s about 400,000 fewer than there were just six years ago. Democrats have also lost numbers as people have moved to register as independents, but Republicans have lost more, and now make up only 28 percent of the overall electorate.”
Myers’ producer asks that he shift his position, so they can do another take.
It’s late afternoon Friday,and the bar at the Anaheim Marriott is filling up. At the corner are two women joined by Joy Delepine, a 2014 state Assembly candidate from District 14, which mostly encompasses Contra Costa County. After making it into the general election by finishing second in the primary as a write-in candidate, Delepine won 31 percent of the electoral vote.
Her friends commiserate with the bartender, seeking cocktail advice.
“We like alcohol,” one says.
A man I later learn is Sean Lee takes the barstool to my right. He is Asian American, in his mid-40s, and says he has never tried Guinness. He asks for a sample, and satisfied with the taste, orders a pint.
Before long, Lee—who was educated at UC Irvine and the University of Southern California—starts talking about Donald Trump, and the state of politics in America.
“We had two sessions in office, and now there’s two sessions of a Democrat in office. But what’s changed? Not much; they’re all playing politics,” Lee says.
Lee is an entrepreneur and runs a company, Political Data Inc., that he says can get the most up-to-date voter information on the market. He doesn’t sell his services to Democratic candidates.
“The core issues are what’s deteriorated: the safety of our country, our economy and relation to all the other countries,” Lee says. “That’s what needs to be fixed first. Donald Trump represents someone that’s very fresh, something different.”
But Lee later flips on the idea that Trump’s popularity is hinged on him not being a politician.
“I don’t think life is that different whether you’re a politician or a businessman,” he says. “You’ve got to deal. It’s a give and take. You’re trying to get the best deal for your side and come out on top.”
Mike Madrid’s day is not going well.
It’s day two of the convention, and one of the state’s pre-eminent campaign strategists is having a hard time controlling a basic seminar about winning local elections.
When he tells the attendees they should focus on door-to-door outreach, mailers and social media, cries from the crowd are immediate. Lawn signs, they say, are the most important thing to get elected.
Madrid is persistent, and spends another 10 minutes explaining his logic: Signs don’t ultimately sway voters. Period. “I’m not saying lawn signs are not important. What I’m saying is, they’re the least important.”
Madrid steers the conversation toward door-to-door strategies, and says candidates should spend at least nine weekends, as well some nights after work, knocking on doors and meeting their would-be supporters.
“When they go to the polls, they’re going to remember who you are,” he says. “If you knock on more doors than your opponent, your chances of success are exponentially greater.”
Then Madrid—ready to talk about how to disarm people answering the door, or how to use Facebook effectively—calls on a woman with her hand raised.
The woman wants to say lawn signs are the most important factor in getting elected in her district.
“What lawn signs are really about,” he says, “they’re about politicians needing to see their name out there and give them a sense of comfort.
“Being a candidate is not easy. It’s not that fun, and if you like it, we also have therapy.”
The room laughs.
“If (lawn signs are) my strategy, then I need to change my strategy,” he says. “After you’ve bought your slate mail, Facebook ads, after you’ve had all your events, buy a lawn sign. And if you win, let me know, and I’ll still disagree with you.”
The bald white guy talking to two other white guys is wearing a pin on his white dress shirt: “Stop Co-Ed Bathrooms,” it says.
Past him down the hall is a table covered with conservative bumper stickers, which the purveyor has qualified with a sign reading: “Warning | Politically Incorrect Area | Rampant Insensitivity Authorized.”
Among the bumper-sticker offerings: “Evolution Is Science Fiction,” “Keep Honking … I’m Reloading” and “Save the Males.”
Increasing the female vote is key for the state’s Republican party, and the subject of a Saturday afternoon seminar.
It begins with GOP strategist Richard Temple presenting some sobering statistics: 67 percent of unmarried women voted for Obama in 2012, and 58 percent of women voted Democrat in 2014.
Add to that, 58 percent of women don’t feel the Republican party understands them.
Temple then implores the women in the room to step up: “The issues are there for us,” he says. “And women can say stuff we can’t say as men.”
A handful of women follow Temple on the mic, the second being state Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, a young politician out of Modesto.
“Negative campaigning is not going to inspire women,” says Olsen. “Maybe it’s because we’re tired of hearing our kids whine all day.”
But she encourages women to run.
“The women who run tend to win,” she says. “We have a terrible track record in getting women to run in the first place.”
Next up is Roseann Slonsky-Breault, president of the California Federation of Republican Women, which she says is the largest all-volunteer political organization in the country.
“We’ve got to win back that White House, and we’ve got to get boots on the ground to do that. Women’s issues are what men’s issues are,” she says.
“Remember the soccer moms from 2004? Well, the soccer moms are back,” she adds. “Everyone is worrying about the future.”
Outside the Marriott Saturday night are women and Asian men dressed as medieval maidens.
The Marriott is across a plaza from a Hilton, and the Anaheim Convention Center sits just to its west.
It turns out the Hilton, concurrent to the GOP convention, is hosting TouhouCon, and spilling outside into the plaza are rows of slick Hondas custom-painted with Japanese anime characters. Maidens are everywhere, posing for pictures.
Touhou enthusiast David Storm, who is circulating in the plaza amid the cosplayers, explains that Touhou is a video game created in 1996 “by one drunk programmer” that has since captured a cult following.
“It’s like half of Japan’s underground culture,” he says. “If you go to anything there, it will be like half Touhou. It’s ridiculous. You go out to the raves over there; it’s ridiculous.”
But what do the cars have to do with game?
“Nothing,” Storm says. “People just like the cars.”
After Dana Rohrabacher leads the pledge of allegiance at the convention’s Saturday-night dinner event, he announces he will be singing a song.
“We just pledged our allegiance to the flag, right,” says Rohrabacher, a U.S. congressman from Costa Mesa. “That’s what this is really all about. It’s all about America. It’s all about what America stands for. It’s not about politics; it’s not about titles. It’s about our country, our country that stands for freedom, our country that is the shining example of liberty and justice for the entire world, the only hope for the world.
“I’m not a very good singer,” he hedges, and picks up a guitar. “It’s called ‘God Bless Our Freedom.’”
And then he puts his pipes to work.
“God bless America, God bless our freedom, and God bless the people who work everyday. God bless the folks, who built this great country…
“Beauty and progress are one with the land, and neighbor helps neighbor, we all understand … ”
The night’s featured speaker was scheduled to be Gov. Walker.
On short notice, the California GOP recruited John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under the George W. Bush administration, to take Walker’s place. He didn’t come to the stage with Rohrabacher’s optimistic energy, but rather, fear and loathing.
“For the eight years of the Obama administration, we’ve had our security and our place in the world put at risk,” Bolton says. “We’ve seen America retreat from positions of security that have been built up by decades of effort. We’ve witnessed international terrorism grow back to the point that it was on Sept. 11, 2001 and even gotten worse than that … .
“All across the Middle East, state structures are breaking down, and new ones are being created, and not to our advantage. ISIS now controls territory in Iraq and Syria equal to the size of Great Britain. They are creating a new country. They have a currency, a central bank, a national budget—which puts them ahead of us … ”
Laughter fills the room, briefly, and Bolton goes on about Benghazi, and how weak Obama is on foreign policy.
“There are enormous changes going on the world, all of them negative,” Bolton says. “The outlook, I’m afraid to say, is uniformly gloomy. I wish I had better news for you, but we have made a huge mistake as a country in electing this man president twice.”
The room erupts with applause.
Saturday night, after the Bay Area GOP shuts their party down, the bar at the Marriott fills up, mostly with men.
Dave Titus, chief of staff for Beth Gaines, a state Assemblywoman from the Sacramento area, pulls up to a vacant stool and surveys the scene.
“Look at all these dudes at the bar,” he says. “It’s like sword-fight city. It’s like spring training.”
Titus is talking about the high number of men at the bar, but he could also be talking the 2016 Republican presidential race—or, for that matter, the party itself. Men in a fight.
That’s not how Luis Buhler, the former vice chair of the Bay Area GOP who was heckled by the young man in the sport coat, sees it. Two days after discussing the party platform at the Bay Area GOP party, he publishes a blog post about the convention: “California Republicans wrapped up their annual fall convention Sunday optimistic and united,” it begins.
Later, he adds this: “Republicans have avoided controversial internal fights and expanded (their) reach to groups traditionally excluded from the party.”