The speech still is more than a month distant, but Rep. Devin Nunes already knows what he plans to tell California Republicans at their winter organizing convention – take the offensive, but in an unconventional fashion.
Nunes, a Tulare Republican, House Intelligence Committee chairman and member of the executive committee of President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team, has long used his position in Congress to press GOP issues.
He has publicly battled Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein and so-called “radical environmentalists.” But while he has spent most of his tenure at the federal level in the political majority, Republicans at the state level have toiled as an ineffective minority.
That means issues of importance to Republicans remain largely unfulfilled in California.
We’ve really lost our way. We can’t even get our message out. We’re overwhelmed by money, public employee unions and big cities.
Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare
“We’ve really lost our way,” Nunes said in an interview. “We can’t even get our message out. We’re overwhelmed by money, public employee unions and big cities. It’s hard for Republicans to break in. People in California have no idea what Republicans stand for any more.”
The way Nunes sees it, and the crux of his dinner speech on Feb. 25 at the Hyatt Regency Sacramento, will be that the California Republican Party needs to focus on four or five major issues, and try to pass them via the state’s initiative process.
“It’s the one way we have to still be relevant,” Nunes said.
But is it realistic?
“If he hasn’t, he ought to have a word with Schwarzenegger,” Pitney said, referring to actor and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. “That didn’t work out so well for him in 2005.”
That year Schwarzenegger, a Republican in his second year in office and not far removed from being an A-list Hollywood actor, pushed four ballot initiatives in an effort to reshape state government. All four failed. The proposals would have slowed state spending growth, redrawn state legislative and congressional districts, made teachers work longer to achieve tenure, and restricted political spending by public employee unions.
But Nunes said something has to be done.
Right now, things are looking good for Republicans at the federal level. Donald Trump, a Republican, will be sworn in Friday as the nation’s 45th president. The GOP controls both houses of Congress. In fact, for a good portion of Nunes’ time in Congress, he has been in the majority.
At the same time, however, state Republicans have seen their popularity plummet in the Golden State, as Democrats hold both houses – with two-thirds majorities – as well as the governor’s office and every single statewide office.
Trump was pummeled in November by Democrat Hillary Clinton, and as of late October, just 26 percent of the state’s voters were registered as Republicans. That’s barely above those registered as “no party preference” and close to 19 percentage points behind the rival Democrats.
For Nunes, the road back for Republicans is not one of compromise. The issues the party pushes via ballot measures should be core GOP values and concepts. Party leaders must be willing to lose.
“People are running out of ideas,” Nunes said. “We need to stick with a plan and keep pushing it until you see it won’t work. This is the one plan that hasn’t been tried.”
In doing so, however, Nunes said Republicans must remember one key thing: “You can’t out-Democrat the Democrats. You can’t be moderate. Democrat lite.”
Focus on local issues, focus on service, say as little about Trump as possible.
Jack Pitney, Claremont McKenna College professor
Instead, the party should “write legislation to help people live their lives,” Nunes said. That means decreasing regulations and crafting strategies to attract business to the state or help those here to expand. To push for higher-paying jobs.
“Until we win the war of ideas, we’re not going to win,” he said.
This doesn’t mean abandoning the state Legislature. But some seats may not be worth the effort – both in money and people. Nunes said the best strategy is likely to focus on a few key seats while at the same time pushing big ideas through the initiative process.
One possible area to address could be to rein in the State Water Resources Control Board, which Nunes said is “totally out of control.” If the effort loses, he advised, come back the next election cycle and do it again.
Pitney, the Claremont McKenna College government professor, has a simpler idea for Republicans to re-energize the party and start to regain relevance: “Focus on local issues, focus on service, say as little about Trump as possible.”
John Ellis: @johnellis24