Jessica Patterson was the overwhelming choice of elected officials in the state, a nod to California Republicans calling for more diversity in their ranks. | Steve Yeater/AP Photo
Jessica Patterson is the first female head of the state GOP, and delegates also chose an Asian-American as vice chairman and a gay man as treasurer.
SACRAMENTO — The California Republican Party, battered by the 2018 midterms and anemic voter registration, has chosen Jessica Patterson, the first woman in its history, as chairwoman following a combative election Sunday that pitted loyalists of President Donald Trump against those from the party establishment.|
The election of Patterson, 38, a Latina mother of two and an ally of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), to lead the nation’s largest state GOP operation into the 2020 election cycle came at the close of a raucous three-day party convention that drew a record 1,500 grassroots delegates to Sacramento.Story Continued Below
Patterson was the overwhelming choice of elected officials in the state. The CEO of California Trailblazers, a party recruitment and training program for candidates, she won the spot after a tense contest against two grassroots conservative activists who are both vocal backers of Trump: former Assemblyman Travis Allen and Steve Frank, a longtime party insider.
Speaking to delegates after winning a solid 54.6 percent of the votes on the first ballot, Patterson delivered a feisty call for unity — and a promise of future victories — to hungry members of the state GOP, which has been reduced to third-party status in California.
“Today, we are starting the next chapter in our party history,’’ she said. “We’re going to be about one thing: winning. We’re going to take the fight to Democrats. … We’re going to fight them in the precincts and we’re going to beat them in elections.”
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In a nod to state Republicans calling for more diversity in their ranks, delegates on Sunday also elected Peter Kuo, an East Bay businessman who is an immigrant from Taiwan, to be its vice chairman and Greg Gandrud, who is openly gay, as its treasurer.
With Patterson’s victory, California Republicans will now be led by a roster of women: Marie Waldron heads the Assembly Republican caucus and Shannon Grove was recently named minority leader in the state Senate.
The dramatic shift in party leadership was cheered by Republican women, who said it signaled a much-needed boost for a party in decline.
“It gave me chills,” Beth Miller, a veteran communications consultant and a former press secretary in the administrations of Gov. Pete Wilson and President George H.W. Bush, said after Patterson’s victory. “She won decisively, and that means that a lot of people want a new direction. She’s come up through the party, and I’m so proud we have elected the first woman, a Latina, a millennial.”
Cassandra Pye, a former adviser to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said: “I’m really excited … the board looks like California. We have to accept the fact that if we want to attract young voters, we’ve got to have young people at the front. She’s a young mom, she’s got a lot of energy. I love the optics.”
With the latest polls showing two-thirds of Californians disapproving of Trump’s job performance, state Republicans over the weekend wrestled with the question of how much to embrace the President — or hold him at arm’s length and emphasize California-based issues.
Patterson, who says she voted for Trump in 2016, urged the party to steer away from “national issues’’ and to focus in the next election cycle on matters like California’s high housing costs and taxes.
After her election, Patterson sidestepped questions from reporters about whether she would invite the president to California to campaign or raise money. “We’ll have to see how it works,” she said.
Even with the powerful backing of McCarthy, and the lion’s share of California elected officials and party leadership on her team, Patterson faced a weekend of attacks by activists on the far right who charged that she was as part of the failed “establishment” and “elite” in the GOP, which now has fewer registered voters than Democrats or those who have declared “no party preference.”
The tense atmosphere extended to the streets outside, where a altercation between “Make America Great Again” supporters and liberal activists occurred Saturday night outside a “Build the Wall” dinner sponsored by Tea Party activists a few blocks from the convention. Police moved in after demonstrators gathered outside, some wearing bandanas and some chanting, “We welcome immigrants here.”
And across the street from the convention on the steps of the California State Capitol, speakers in support of Allen’s grassroots campaign who wore “Trump 2020” gear and #MAGA hats mingled with members of the extremist and nationalist group Proud Boys as officers on horseback looked on. Speakers railed against “Communist” Democrats running the state, led chants of “Lock her up!” and sung along to a “Build the Wall’’ hip hop tune as rally participants waved signs urging Republicans to “Take Back California.”
Throughout the weekend, tensions also boiled over inside as candidates made impassioned pitches to activist delegates. “My friends told me it’s pretty ugly out there,” said Jim Brulte, the outgoing state party chairman.
Opponents of Patterson’s candidacy shouted “Drain the Swamp” and booed after she delivered a speech touting her endorsements from elected officials; a Frank proponent suggested that Patterson’s supporters had been “paid.” In his speech backing Patterson, San Diego talk show host Carl DeMaio accused Allen of being an “egomaniac” making lofty but undeliverable promises about his ability to lead Republicans in the next cycle.
Patterson, even while urging Republicans to reject divisive politics, repeatedly employed red-meat rhetoric in an effort to corral many of conservatives still on the fence.
“I know who the enemy is … they’re about 500 yard away, in that big white building,’’ she told one caucus, pointing to the Democratic-dominated State Capitol across the street. “Every single day, they come up with silly ideas. … They’re trying to take away our freedoms,’’ she added.
Former Rep. Darrell Issa, whose 49th Congressional District seat flipped to Democrat Mike Levin following his retirement last year, backed Patterson — and acknowledged the challenges facing the withered California GOP in a state where the president is historically unpopular.
The problem today, he told POLITICO, is that “as soon as you say you’re a Republican, you’re at a disadvantage.”
“So you’ve got to position it,’’ he said. “We want to show the party is much more inclusive … that we’re the party that is pro-business, that does not attack people of faith. If we make the party all about who’s in Washington … then, no.”
But Issa said the stakes were high regarding the leadership of the nation’s largest state Republican organization.
“It’s important nationally who our party chairman is,” he said. “We may be blue for a long time, but we’re still an economic engine. And if we’re not represented by both parties, Washington writes you off.”
Despite a consensus among Republican political consultants that Trump’s low approval ratings fueled across-the-ballot losses in November, support for the president was pervasive among party activists. John Cox — the 2018 Republican gubernatorial candidate, who didn’t vote for Trump, yet rode a Trump endorsement into the general election before enduring a historic loss — opened his speech to delegates by predicting to cheers that the president would win a second term.
Supporters of both Allen and Frank said they saw a vote for Patterson as an endorsement of inept party officials that had brought California Republicans to their current nadir, including McCarthy, a Bakersfield Republican.
But Demaio, the talk show host, said it was long past time for California Republicans to focus on California issues — and what he called the state’s mismanagement by Democrats in power — instead of Trump.
“You can go anti-Trump all you want, but at some point, don’t you have to hold the supermajority Democrats accountable here?’’ he said. “The chairman of the California Republican Party has to reinvent the Republican brand … at a time when the brand is also influenced by national politicians. There is a national party, there are national personalities, and we need to get back to issues facing our state.”
Democrats watching the scene rejoiced in the disarray and internecine warfare of the rival GOP, which holds no statewide offices and has been reduced to a minority in both houses of the state Legislature. They said the California GOP’s road to revival heading toward 2020 was blocked by the current occupant of the White House, no matter who was in charge of the state party.
“It’s the political Donner Party of the 21st Century,’’ said Bob Mulholland, a veteran Democratic campaign consultant. “Whether they like it or not, Trump is their national leader and that makes trouble for them. He’s too dominant to hide from.”
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