Republicans turned to Jim Brulte to revive the California GOP. Next year they’ll find out if he can.
Brulte, the prominent former legislator, became chairman of the California Republican Party in March, following the 2012 elections in which Democrats seized two-thirds majorities in both houses of the state Legislature for the first time in more than 100 years.
Yet midterm elections are historically bad for members of the incumbent president’s party, and a handful of closely watched legislative races next year may afford the GOP an opportunity to break out of its superminority status.
Like many other Republicans, Brulte, 57, considers it a pivotal election cycle.
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“My view is that 2014 may be the best opportunity Republicans have to pick up legislative seats in 20 years and will likely be the best opportunity we have this decade,” Brulte said.
The outcome of next year’s elections is significant to a party now nearly irrelevant in California. Republican voter registration has dropped below 30 percent statewide, and no Republican holds statewide office.
Brulte, a highly regarded tactician who helped Republicans win a majority in the state Assembly for the first time in the 1990s, was recruited by the GOP to move the party away from ideology, refocusing on fundraising, voter registration and turnout.
Brulte grew up in San Bernardino County and got his start in politics as an aide to U.S. Sen. S.I. Hayakawa in 1980, where he said “at one point I think I was the only male receptionist in the U.S. Senate in Washington, D.C.”
But he said he was never at home in the nation’s capital – or in Sacramento.
“I’m a conservative,” he said. “It’s not just a philosophical conservative. I tend to eat the same meals. For some people, a nice dinner is an experience. For me, eating is about fuel. My idea of the perfect evening is, you know, takeout at home watching ‘Homeland.’”
After 10 years as a legislative aide and working for the Republican National Committee, the Reagan administration and George H. W. Bush, Brulte won an Assembly seat from Rancho Cucamonga in 1990. He served 14 years in the Assembly and Senate and was the GOP leader in each house.
“By far and away the best thing I’ve ever done maybe even in my life was the Safe Arms for Newborns bill,” he said, recalling legislation passed in 2000 to let parents leave unwanted newborns 72 hours and younger at hospitals and some fire stations without fear of prosecution.
It was six years after his most significant political success, when Republicans picked up eight Assembly seats under his stewardship and eventually briefly controlled the lower house.
But Brulte viewed even that accomplishment as a missed opportunity. He said “the dirty little secret of 1994” is that “we would have picked up 11 or 12 (seats) if we had more resources.”
Under Brulte, the CRP this year helped a Republican, Andy Vidak, win election to the state Senate in a heavily Democratic district, and it announced this fall that it had paid off more than $1 million in debt. Brulte’s agreement to be CRP chairman was itself a victory for the party.
Last year, as Republicans lobbied Brulte to run, Mike Spence, president of the Conservative Republicans of California, said installing a chairman with Brulte’s credentials “shows we’re not dead in California.” More recently, Aaron Park, a conservative blogger and official with the conservative California Republican Assembly, cited the high “energy level” at the CRP’s fall convention, which he attributed to Brulte’s leadership.
Brulte said 2014 is a “great year of opportunity for us” but that “the question is will we have the resources to capitalize on that.”
The Republican Party’s fundraising apparatus lags far behind that of Democrats. But the GOP’s concerns go beyond immediate financial resources in this heavily Democratic state. The party has failed for decades to adjust to California’s demographic changes, including the increasing influence of Latinos on the electorate.
Garry South, a Democratic strategist who works with Brulte at the Sacramento public affairs company California Strategies LLC, called Brulte a “really, really good political strategist.”
“If anybody can figure out a way to allow the California Republican Party to hang on to some shards of power, it’s Jim Brulte,” South said.
However, he added, “I don’t think it’s there ... I don’t know how you resurrect the Republican Party.”