ANAHEIM, Calif.—Five Asian-American Republican women are running for office in Orange County, Calif., next year, including two in key races to win back seats currently occupied by the state’s Democratic supermajority.
“We are the new face of the Republican Party,” said Young Kim of Fullerton, Calif., who is running for state assembly. With short permed hair and a classy black dress, the mother of four was full of energy: “We are not fighting evil, we’re fighting the wrong ideologies that represent us.”
And new faces showed up at the California Republican Party convention in early October, including more Asian and Hispanic Republican leaders, as well as more young people. Another new face–the Tea Party California Caucus (TPCC) made its first convention appearance, ruffling feathers as it hopes to move the party right. As the party tries to regroup and rebuild, having just paid off its $1 million debt, the question remains as to what the rebuilt state party will look like.
The last election was discouraging for Republicans around the state: Democrats took control of two-thirds of both chambers in the legislature, giving them the power to raise taxes unfettered. Currently, only 29 percent of Californians are registered with the Republican Party, the lowest percentage since records have been available.
So rather than focusing on a gubernatorial candidate to replace Gov. Jerry Brown next year, the party pointed resources toward local elections and chipping away at the Democrats’ stronghold in Sacramento. The party’s hope buoyed last July when Andy Vidak, a Republican farmer in Central Valley, won a Senate seat in a heavily Democratic district. Republican challengers like Kim and Janet Nguyen, who is running for an Orange County Senate seat, could be the key to ending the supermajority.
Yet ideological differences continued to divide the party. The split was most apparent in a struggle over the so-called “bathroom bill” that allows public-school students to use facilities based on their perceived identity rather than their biological sex. Conservatives set up a booth with a toilet and rolls of toilet paper next to a petition that would put the bill on the November ballot rather than letting it take effect in Jan. 1.
But in a committee vote over backing the repeal, regional vice chairman Gregory Gandrud, who is gay, cautioned members about the message they would be sending if they were to fight against the bill, especially as the party tries to appeal to more Californians. The resolution passed on a split vote.
Divisions also were apparent in the two candidates in the running for governor: On one side is Tea Party favorite Tim Donnelly, a former Minuteman border patrolman who stands against abortion and same-sex marriage. On the other is former Lieutenant Governor Abel Maldonado, who kept quiet during the convention about his support of abortion rights, same-sex marriage, and a path to citizenship for immigrants who are in the country illegally. Neither has the money or the backing to compete with Gov. Jerry Brown, who has raised $10 million.
“I think [the TPCC] has a profound effect on this convention,” said Ron Robinson, who is working on new technology for the caucus. “A lot of light is being shone on Republican governance, and as a result the governance has been better.”
At the same time, the party tried to find common ground with the growing ethnic groups in California, specifically Asians and Hispanics. Kim and Nguyen were just two of the nearly 30 Asian-American elected officials gathered at a roundtable discussion on what the Republican Party can do to tap into the growing demographic that has traditionally voted Democratic, yet holds many Republican ideals.
Michelle Park Steel, vice chair of the Board of Equalization, and her husband Shawn, the Republican National Committeeman from California, have pushed for further inclusion of Asian-American leaders, and the attendees sitting around the table—some in their 20s and 30s—are the product of their labor. Steel referred to them as her “daughter” and “sister” and said they are the ones to change the Republican stereotypes: “I’m not telling [Asians] they can’t be Democrats, I tell them that we are for small businesses, school choice, things they care about.” Even having Asian female representatives counters the claims that Republicans are all old white men.
But the Steels have a tough battle ahead of them: In 2012, 79 percent of Asian-Americans in California voted for President Barack Obama. And that segment of the population is important: Asian-Americans are the fastest-growing minority in the state, currently making up 12 percent of all voters. Rep. Donald Wagner, who represents Asian-heavy Irvine, said that as his campaign reached out to his Asian constituents, some said they had never spoken to a Republican before.
Kim, who is running for assembly in a traditionally conservative district that was taken over by a Democrat last election, said that Republicans need to work on issues that Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Cambodian communities are concerned about, such as North Korean human rights or the attack on families. Republican’s biggest advantage is the large number of small-business owners in the group that are feeling the burden of high taxes and regulation in the state.
It comes down to getting involved in the community—talking to people, showing up at meetings, attending parades—and having candidates who look like them to gain Asian votes, Steel said.
Latino Republicans expressed similar sentiments that individual leaders can change Hispanics’ perceptions of the Republican party.
“Latinos are always Democrats–but why?” Mayor Ignacio Velazquez of Hollister, Calif., asked. “People will trust you once they believe you have what it takes to succeed. … I just talk to the community, some people say ‘I trust you even though we know you’re a Republican.’”
Velazquez is part of Grow Elect, a grassroots organization to endorse, train, and fund Latino Republicans for office. Led by Mexican-American Ruben Barrales, the former deputy assistant to President George W. Bush, Grow Elect has helped elect 30 Latino officials since late 2011, and the group has another 24 candidates this year.
At the Grow Elect roundtable, one Latino official said he was a Republican because everything he learned from his father about hard work and faith lined up with the Republican Party. Another pointed out that Latinos care much more about job creation than immigration, and with Democrats in complete control of the state, they’ll soon see Republicans are the ones who can provide that. Attendees also criticized the Republicans for alienating much of the population with insisting on English-only campaigns, and they stressed the need to reach out to the Latino faith community.
Young people milled around the convention, some hailing from liberal bastions like West L.A. and San Francisco. A meeting for the Young Republican Federation packed the room, led by its state chairman in a Los Angeles Dodgers T-shirt.
Tiffany Abrahms, a 36-year-old from Santa Monica, said part of what keeps young people from joining the Republican Party is the cool factor. “The characterization of being a Republican is that it’s not cool, unfortunately. But its values—like individual freedom and keeping your own money—everybody wants that.” Abrahms believes the party needs to show that it’s relevant, that Republicans do charity, are up-to-date, and have fun.
“It’s a lot more fun being a Republican in California,” said 27-year-old Adam Ellison of Sacramento. “We need to work for it to be a success.”