Tea party activists made an energetic showing Saturday at a California Republican Party convention, promoting resolutions to block the state's high-speed rail project and require voters to show photo identification at the polls as part of a push to influence the direction of the struggling state organization.
GOP Tensions on Display at California Convention
The loosely formed tea party has long been uncomfortable with traditional party politics. But Mark Meckler, a co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, told a room packed with cheering supporters at an afternoon meeting that the state GOP could be revitalized by tea party activists and he stood with those trying to make a change.
"I've been to a lot of tea parties, but I've never been to a Republican Party convention before," Meckler said, noting that he withdrew from the GOP more than a decade ago after becoming disillusioned with its direction.
Meckler said he's listened to much debate about whether activists should become involved in the GOP but "the reason I decided to be here is because the people who are here are fighting ... for the heart and soul of the Republican Party in California."
The meeting represented the best organized effort to date by the tea party to become a force within the state party, as leaders consider how to rebuild after being pushed to the political margins in the nation's most populous state. Democrats hold every statewide office, dominate both chambers in the Legislature and hold a commanding 2.7 million-voter edge in statewide registration.
The state GOP is looking for ways to recruit new GOP voters, especially among minorities, women and the young, while keeping the peace between uneasy conservative and centrist factions.
The day highlighted many challenges.
Conservatives said the party had drifted too far to the center. A divide emerged over the party's image when a committee waded into a debate involving transgender children and schools and party leaders faced criticism for accepting donations from public employee labor unions they typically oppose in campaigns.
In August, California become the first state to enshrine certain rights for transgender students in law, requiring public schools to allow those students access to whichever restroom or locker room they want to use. A potential ballot question in November would rescind the new law.
Gregory Gandrud, a regional vice chairman for the party, warned members of a committee considering backing the repeal to be cautious about the message the party is sending at a time when it's trying to broaden its membership.
To build the party "we have to be very careful how we portray ourselves publicly," he said, adding that there could be other ways to deal with the issue. He urged members to consider "the message that comes out of this convention." The committee approved a resolution supporting the repeal on a split vote.
The three-day convention took place with a backdrop of the partial government shutdown in Washington, D.C., with party members eager to place the political fault on Democrats. Texas Gov. Rick Perry told reporters at the convention Friday that President Barack Obama is to blame. "This is on him," Perry said.
Addressing delegates Saturday night, Perry broadened his criticism of the president's tenure, blaming him for the nation's mounting debt and a wayward Middle East policy while predicting the national health care overhaul would damage the economy.
"America cannot sustain its current fiscal course," Perry said. "The downgrading of our credit, for the first time two years ago, shouldn't have surprised anyone."
The day also showcased the party's efforts to attract new voters. According to the independent Field Poll, 9 of 10 new voters in the state in the last decade have been Hispanic or Asian and in the last presidential race Obama received more than 70 percent of the Hispanic and Asian vote.
"We need a whole new set of warriors in communities we haven't had before," Republican National Committeeman Shawn Steel told a group of Asian officeholders. A later panel highlighted GOP Hispanics and efforts to reach into Latino communities.
At a panel discussion on technology, strategist Chandra Sharma told delegates that most Republican campaigns tend to rely on mail advertising and phone calls that don't reach people under 35 years old. More emphasis and investment needs to go online, he said.
"We have a lot of catching up to do," he said.
Party Chairman Jim Brulte defended the union donations, which included $15,000 from a local of the Service Employees International Union. He said the local has a significant GOP membership and he intended to work with those members to advance Republican candidates and causes.
Party leaders have said they welcome the tea party activists, who also are pushing a slate of resolutions. One urges the Legislature to enact a law that would require voters at the polls to show identification with a photo, similar to requirements being contested in other states. The proposal could place leadership in an uncomfortable spot, at a time when they are trying to lure more minority voters. Critics argue the restrictions are intended to discourage students, lower-income people and minorities from voting, groups that typically lean Democratic.