As the performance of party leadership is reviewed, some commentators and self-styled analysts get it wrong -- mixing up what party leaders can control and influence with what they can’t. The result can be incorrect analysis and bad recommendations.
Having served as a party chairman for more than a decade – six years as leader of the Republican Party in San Diego and four as Chairman of the state GOP – I’m acutely aware of what a chairman controls, versus the external factors beyond his control. Measuring a chairman’s success requires a careful examination of the areas a chairman controls, and comparing the party’s performance in those areas against the limits of what was otherwise possible.
First let’s review what a chairman doesn’t control. He does not pick the candidates – those are chosen by voters, and thanks to California’s misguided “jungle primary” system, the Republican nominees are not even chosen by the party’s own members, but rather by the electorate at large.
America’s political system is candidate-centric, not party centric. Commentators and journalists consistently gloss over the reality that the real decision-making power in any campaign lies with the candidates, who choose their own messages, staff, strategy, tactics and approaches to fundraising. If a candidate alienates key constituencies, fails to raise money effectively, chooses the wrong messages, or their mail lands after the polls close are all decisions made by candidates and campaigns, and it is they who need to be accountable.
And they are – when they lose, they’re out.
Chairmen also do not control the party’s brand, which is primarily driven by national media coverage of Republicans in Washington and on the national stage. Doubt this? Check how many minutes of coverage per day the typical Californian receives from the 916 area code versus 202. Party brands are defined nationally, and the Republican Party brand does pretty well -- nationally. A Republican President-elect, House and Senate demonstrate that.
The California electorate, however, is very different than the national electorate, with much higher Latino and Asian populations that are far less receptive to national Republican messages than whites. The state also has a much larger immigrant population which is sensitive to different issues than those whose parents were born here.
So just what does a party chairman control? Three things – personnel, finances, and programs. That’s not a big list, but it’s longer than it was between 2001 and 2009 when Republican state party chairmen in California were hamstrung by misguided rules that seriously complicated a chairman’s ability to lead the party. Since 2009, party chairmen in California can and should be held accountable for their personnel, the state of party finances, and the political programs the party implements.
In the areas he controls, California Republican Party Chairman Jim Brulte has performed exceptionally well.
The California Republican Party staff is professional and efficient. Staff level relations with candidate campaigns have functioned well, phone calls are returned, and the staff is consistently focused on implementing the directives coming from the Chairman and Board of Directors.
State party finances are a critically important metric for me. When I became state party chairman in 2007 the CRP was in a $4.7 MILLION sinkhole. I left the chairmanship in 2011 with well over $400,000 in cash on hand, no debt, no bills and a low burn rate.
When Chairman Brulte was elected, the CRP was back in debt again to the tune of over $1 million. Yet, he quickly brought the state party back into the black and has kept it there.
This is no small accomplishment. Just like in government, all the pressure on the party coming from Sacramento can be summed up in two words: SPEND. MORE. Desperate candidates push the party to spend money it doesn’t have to help their campaigns, and consultants don’t earn commissions on money left in the bank. Brulte demonstrates the strength to say yes when he can, and say no when he must.
Finally, programs. California’s convoluted maze of campaign finance laws places a premium on raising money into the state party and then working with campaigns to the maximum legal extent to get resources where they need to be. Sometimes this involves spending the money directly on voter registration and turnout activities, while at other teams it requires making contributions to campaigns directly.
The results speak for themselves. Despite a national ticket that did not perform well in California, Republicans held a majority of the state legislative seats that were targeted by the Democrats, who spent roughly $1 million per district while every Republican member of the House of Representatives was elected to a new term. Given the political dynamics in California in 2016, this was the absolute best Republicans could have achieved.
Republicans have work to do in California, no doubt. Candidates and campaign staffs must commit to learning the skills needed to boost campaign performance in urban and suburban areas, improve performance in early voting, and build relationships across diverse communities well before Election Day.
Nationally there is much work to do as well – the messages coming out of Washington DC overpower whatever Republicans are doing in Sacramento. A goal of winning the popular vote, as well as the Electoral College vote, in 2020 should serve as a powerful incentive to strengthen the Republican brand among voters who are Republicans but don’t know it yet.
In the meantime, Chairman Jim Brulte deserves another term.