SACRAMENTO -- Having sunk to its lowest depths in its 159-year history, the California Republican Party's first order of business at this weekend's convention will be to lick its wounds.

The state party is still reeling from humiliating defeats in November that gave Democrats two-thirds majorities in the Assembly and state Senate. It's $500,000 in debt and doesn't even have offices for its staff, which has dwindled to a handful of employees who work from home. The GOP's only gubernatorial prospect for 2014 is a conservative assemblyman who was once a border vigilante. And Republican voter registration in the state is at an all-time low of 29.3 percent.

 2003: Jim Brulte, then State Sen. Minority Leader, next to then Senate President Pro tem John Burton, D-San Francisco, Sacramento, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich
2003: Jim Brulte, then State Sen. Minority Leader, next to then Senate President Pro tem John Burton, D-San Francisco, Sacramento, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, file) ( Rich Pedroncelli )

Into all that gloom rides Jim Brulte, a former Republican leader in the Assembly and state Senate, as the presumptive new party chairman. Brulte has vowed to rebuild the party the old-fashioned way: through voter registration, candidate recruitment and fundraising.

"Nothing focuses a party like a shellacking, and we got shellacked," Brulte said in an interview with this newspaper as he prepared for the weekend festivities, which begin Friday with the arrival of 1,000 GOP delegates, family and friends at the Hyatt Regency and Sacramento Convention Center.

But the challenges go far beyond rebuilding the party machinery. An essential question, political analysts say, is whether GOP activists are ready to explore the depths of their troubles, starting with repairing their awful reputation among Latinos and other minorities.


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"If anyone can begin to restore signs of life in the Republican Party, it is Jim Brulte," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a veteran political analyst at the University of Southern California. "But I'm not sure even he can."

With Latinos less than a year away from becoming the majority group in California, things aren't looking "arithmetically good" for the mostly white Republican Party, Jeffe said.

Latinos have shunned Republicans since Gov. Pete Wilson led the campaign in 1994 for Proposition 187, aimed at prohibiting illegal immigrants from using public education and most social services. The measure was overturned by a federal court in 1999, and since then Republicans have all but lost the Latino and Asian-American vote.

President Barack Obama in November won California's Latino vote by 45 points, Asian-Americans by 58 points and African-Americans by 93 points.

After Mitt Romney's November loss to Obama, Republican leaders across the nation have urged conservatives to drop their hostile views on granting illegal immigrants a path to citizenship as part of immigration reform, if only as a way to stem the electoral bleeding.

"They can't get any part of the emerging demographic voting bloc unless immigration is off the table," said Tony Quinn, a former Republican legislative aide who edits the California Target Book, which analyzes legislative and congressional races. "If they do achieve immigration reform, Republicans can begin to appeal to middle-class Latinos and Asian voters -- and appeal to emerging small-business owners on economic grounds and taxes."

But California Republicans are waging a losing fight on a wide range of social issues that conservative activists hold dear to their identity, said Jack Pitney, a politics and government professor at Claremont McKenna College and former GOP congressional aide. Same-sex marriage, gun control and women's rights are among the issues that Republicans are finding themselves out of step on with the Golden State's electorate, he said.

"Republicans have to be wary about applying litmus tests to statewide candidates," Pitney said. "The party shouldn't abandon social conservatives, but social issues can't be front and center. That's not how the party will win."

Brulte's first move was to secure Karl Rove, the Republican uber-strategist, as the lunchtime speaker at the convention Saturday, a not-so-subtle message to conservative activists that he's seeking a pragmatic way out of the GOP's political morass.

It was controversial pick. Rove didn't endear himself to conservatives when he recently formed a new political group that he said would drum extremist candidates out of GOP primaries -- including those from the tea party -- as a way to appeal to the center.

Rove was himself at the center of GOP failures in the fall: His American Crossroads super PAC spent $300 million on mostly losing candidates.

In a nod to party activists, GOP officials hastily added conservative blogger Ben Shapiro as the convention's keynote speaker Saturday night, while moving Rove to the Saturday afternoon slot. But the strain between the activists and pragmatists remains.

"Going after the tea party and conservatives will be a huge mistake because it's the conservatives who deliver the votes, who have the passion and commitment," said Celeste Greig, president of the California Republican Assembly, a conservative faction of the state party. "I want to win elections, but compromising on principle is not going to work very well."

Greig argues that California Republicans can revive their party simply by improving their message and making more personal contact with communities of color.

One ominous sign for the state party is that only one Republican -- Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks -- has publicly expressed an interest in running for governor next year. A former member of the border-patrolling Minutemen, Donnelly is best known for virulently anti-immigration stances and for being arrested at an airport checkpoint for carrying a loaded handgun in his briefcase.

"If Jerry Brown runs unopposed -- or even worse, if Donnelly is all they can come up with -- Republican voters won't come out because there won't be anything to vote for," Quinn said. "Republican legislative and congressional candidates will be pulled down, and then you lose even more seats in the Legislature and Congress."

Brulte said he understands the depths of the GOP's problems. But he believes Republicans can restore some of their luster as early as 2014, when, he said, they can pick up enough seats in the Legislature to eliminate the Democrats' supermajority.

"I don't think you rebuild everything you lose in one election cycle," he said. "It's going to take some time."

Contact Steven Harmon at 916-441-2101. Follow him at Twitter.com/ssharmon. Read the Political Blotter at IBAbuzz.com/politics.

GOP's Tough times
For the first time since 1884, Democrats in November won a two-thirds majority in both chambers of the Legislature. Here's the current score card:
Assembly
55 Democrats, 25 Republicans
State Senate
26 Democrats*, 11 Republicans
Statewide offices
10 Democrats, 0 Republicans
U.S. Senate seats
2 Democrats, 0 Republicans
U.S. House of Representatives
38 Democrats, 15 Republicans
*Three seats won by Democrats in November are now vacant and will be filled after special elections.