New party chairperson Jessica Patterson shakes hands with a delegate
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Scenes from a dying party?
The race for state party chairperson is a battle for the soul of the party.
That hissing emanating from Sacramento is the sound of the entire California Republican Party establishment breathing a sigh of relief.
At the party’s weekend convention, state GOP delegates selected Jessica Patterson, a millennial Latina with a lengthy resume as a behind-the-scenes party operator, as their new chairperson.
Depending on whom you ask, Patterson’s election offers a ray of hope for a struggling party, marks the continuation of a failed strategy or is bound to make absolutely no difference for a party tethered to an unpopular president.
Travis Allen, the Trump-supporting firebrand from Huntington Beach and former candidate for governor who had vowed to take on a party establishment came up short. So did longtime Republican activist Steve Frank. They both lost despite entering into a political alliance to “resist” Patterson.
“I think we did dodge a bullet,” said Assemblyman Chad Mayes from Yucca Valley, a regular critic of the party’s fervent Trump-leaning base. Prior to the chair’s race, he had warned that an Allen election would lead elected Republicans to leave the GOP.
“This will make a huge difference,” said Luis Alvarado, a consultant, adding that the election of Patterson gave him “hope” for the future of the party.
George Andrews, a party delegate and chief of staff to Assemblyman Tom Lackey, went even further, saying Patterson’s “saved the party.”
Allen’s singular appeal to Trump-supporting diehards had little draw outside of California’s few remaining red districts, he argued. “She can do the math,” Andrews said. “If you can’t do math you probably shouldn’t be chair of the party.”
Patterson is hardly a moderate. She is unequivocally opposed to abortion, is backed by the House minority leader and noted Trump whisperer, Kevin McCarthy, and spent the convention referring to Democratic legislators as the “enemy.”
After winning, the president’s eldest son congratulated Patterson on Twitter. “She’s not anti-Trump,” Andrews said of Patterson, “But she knows how to campaign.”
Unlike Allen, her closest competitor in the race, Patterson did not make her political views or her loyalty to the president the centerpiece of her campaign. That’s a continuation of the approach adopted by Jim Brulte, her immediate predecessor, who viewed the chair position as an operations and logistics manager, not a spokesperson.
“There are too few of us to continue to push people out of the party,” Patterson said the day before the vote. “We are not going to shut people out. We are going to be inclusive.”
But as Allen and Frank spent the entire weekend pointing out, that hands-off approach has not been working.
“We face an existential decision,” Allen said during a moderated discussion on Saturday. “Will we change to fight to win again or will we continue the failing status quo?”
Republicans now make up 24 percent of the California electorate. In last year’s election, they lost half of their congressional delegation and saw their minorities in the state Assembly and Senate reduced to near political irrelevance.
Both Allen and Frank argued that the party’s core problem was not its association with President Trump, whose approval numbers hover around one-third, but its failure to adequately fund voter registration efforts.
After winning, Patterson invited Allen and Frank to lead a newly created “voter registration task force.”
“We can only hope that the Republican Party starts fighting again for the good of all Californians,” Allen said after the results of the vote were broadcast to the convention center auditorium.
Patterson’s victory represents a break from that status quo in one very obvious way. She is the first woman to hold the position of chair and the first Latina. That may be a notable achievement in and of itself. The Republican Party has struggled with white, educated women and Latino voters in the Trump era.
Adding some diversity
The party delegates also elected Peter Kuo, a Taiwanese-born Silicon Valley businessman, as its vice chairman. Greg Gandrud, an openly gay man from the Santa Barbara area, was elected party treasurer for the second time.
Lest anyone accuse the new leadership team of championing multicultural diversity for its own sake, Gandrud recently formed a nonprofit to sue the Santa Barbara public school district for, according to his website, a “curriculum that is racist against white people and teaches students that white male Christian capitalists are oppressors.”
Contrary to the party’s national image, Patterson joins a long list of women in leadership positions within the California GOP, including Sens. Pat Bates and Shannon Grove, the current and incoming minority leaders in the Senate, and Assemblywoman Marie Waldron, the top Republican in the Assembly.
“In the legislative bodies that have supported me, I am so incredibly grateful for the leaders—having three women on the legislative side,” Patterson said at the convention hall. “Senator Grove, Senator Bates and Assemblywoman Waldron: Let’s go out there and do this.”
“This” presumably refers to new efforts to expand the allure of the state GOP. But that broader ideological appeal was not reflected in the line up of speakers at this weekend’s convention. They included former White House press secretary Sean Spicer, Wyoming congresswoman Liz Cheney and Housing and Urban Development secretary Ben Carson.
It’s unclear whether the events of the convention—including the election of Patterson—will resonate with California voters outside the most fervent Republican activists. But according to Mayes, Patterson’s election is a good step in the right direction.
“We still have an incredible amount of work to do,” he said. “Having a new chair is not going to solve our problems. We have to be inclusive, we have to start reaching Californians where they’re at … they’re not going to come to us, we’ve got to go to them. I think Jessica knows that and understands that.”