BURLINGAME, Calif. — California's Republican Party leaders took steps Saturday to try to reset their image and broaden the party's appeal to Hispanics, Asians, young voters and women they need to stay relevant despite tanking registration numbers and election losses.
Republicans were trying to showcase their progress in wooing those groups during their weekend convention in Burlingame, although they acknowledged that the makeover will take more than just talk. Saturday's events were aimed at expanding their voter base, although the lineup of official speakers that seemed to reinforce the stereotype of a party dominated by older white men.
Turning around its fortunes will not be easy for a party that is 80 percent white in a state where whites are not a majority of the population. The fastest-growing segment of the electorate is not aligned with any party.
Republicans at a convention town hall on Latino issues expressed frustration over a perception that the party is anti-immigrant. They said GOP politicians who push a divisive anti-immigration agenda get more media attention than those who are more moderate, but they also criticized themselves for allowing Democrats to frame the discussion and goad them into conversations that damage the party's image.
"The party is its own worst enemy. If you're being baited, don't take the bait," said Michelle Rivas, a board member for the Sacramento-area Twin Rivers School District.
The party's registration is now less than a third of California voters. Republicans lost the election for every statewide office in 2010 and are in danger of losing even more seats this year in the Legislation and among California's congressional delegation.
Overall voter registration in California is about 64 percent white, non-Hispanic, 22 percent Hispanic, 7 percent Asian and 6 percent black. Republican Party registration is about 80 percent white, 13 percent Hispanic, 5 percent Asian and 1 percent black, according to the Field Poll. The secretary of state's office does not compile data on the ethnicity of voters.
By comparison, nearly a third of California Democrats are Hispanic.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield acknowledged that the party will have to tackle the immigration issue, including the heated debate over whether to grant citizenship to illegal immigrants who are already in the United States.
"I think the party's going to have to find a way to address this issue to be able to grow," he said in response to a reporter's question Friday night.
Immigration and the California Dream Act dominated the conversation at the Latino town hall. The Dream Act allows California college students who are in the country illegally to apply for college aid and is different from federal Dream Act legislation that has been debated in Congress. The federal debate centers on whether to provide a pathway for citizenship for those brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
Republicans in the state Legislature opposed the financial aid legislation, which Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, signed into law.
GOP Assemblyman Tim Donnelly led a failed signature drive earlier this year to get a measure on the November ballot that would have repealed the Dream Act and also introduced a bill to establish a strict immigration law modeled after a controversial one adopted in Arizona. Panelists at the town hall expressed frustration over having their agenda associated with Donnelly, of Hesperia, and other conservative lawmakers.
"We Republicans, Latinos, have a responsibility to educate those members, sit down with them and give them a piece of our mind," said Miryam Barajas, vice chairwoman for finance at the state party.
Party Chairman Tom Del Beccaro and others said Democrats emphasize issues such as the Dream Act to try to draw Republicans into debates that will further alienate Hispanic voters.
"The Democrats are using that as an issue to attack us on. They're trying to make us look like we're anti-Latino, which we're not," said Mario Rodriguez, former vice chairman of the party and chairman of the Hispanic 100, which promotes Latino leadership. "Democrats have done polling to figure out what is going to be relevant to the Latino community."
Del Beccaro has held town hall meetings around the state since he took the helm last year in an effort to boost outreach to minority groups. He said this convention's town halls are intended to showcase the success of those efforts.
But a morning session that was introduced as an opportunity for Republican elected officials to learn about Asian-American issues and how to better talk with those voters was short on ideas. Instead, a parade of local elected Asian Republicans introduced themselves to a crowd of about 60.
Mostly they talked about why they are Republican, focusing on economic issues and their desire to reduce government regulations. Like Del Beccaro, several said the key to Republican success will be focusing on state spending and the economy while steering away from divisive social issues.
Virginia Chang Kiraly, director of the Menlo Park Fire protection district, said fiscal responsibility is "an issue we can win on."
"It is true that education and hard work are Asian values, but so is discipline, and that includes financial discipline," she said.
Despite the focus on Asians, Hispanics and younger voters, diversity was not reflected in the choice for Saturday's headline speakers — former House Speaker and GOP presidential contender Newt Gingrich and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
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Gingrich delivered a nearly hour-long address on energy policy to a luncheon crowd. The audience of about 200 murmured loudly when Gingrich asked who remembered the long lines and skyrocketing gas prices during the energy crisis of the 1970s.
He said this year's drawn-out presidential nominating contest, which has been a musical chairs game of front-runners, could make California's June 5 presidential primary relevant for the first time in years.
"There will not be any lockdown before we get to California," said Gingrich, who was introduced by former presidential candidate and pizza magnate Herman Cain.