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LOS ANGELES (AP) – Politics is cyclical, and beleaguered California Republicans are hoping things might be turning their way, at least incrementally.
The victory this summer of Republican cherry farmer Andy Vidak in a state Senate district long controlled by Democrats gave the GOP a whiff of encouragement in a state where Democrats hold every statewide office, dominate both chambers in the Legislature and hold a commanding 2.7 million-voter edge in statewide registration.
Vidak’s win in the San Joaquin Valley will be recalled this weekend when party delegates gather in Anaheim to map a way forward at an annual convention attended by activists from across the state. This week Chairman Jim Brulte announced the party had retired a lingering debt, another step in gradually rebuilding the ailing organization.
Vidak’s campaign “is the first big victory we’ve really had in 10 years. It’s a landmark,” said National Committee member Shawn Steel.
The event will highlight the party’s efforts to recruit new voters, especially Hispanics and Asians, as well as the challenges it faces. A deep divide has long run between the party’s moderate and conservative wings over issues from climate change to immigration.
State tea party activists plan to mount their best organized effort to date to influence the direction of the state party, including plans to introduce resolutions that call for blocking the state’s costly high-speed rail project and urging the federal government to strictly enforce immigration law.
More than 60 delegates are aligned with a new group calling itself the Tea Party California Caucus.
At a time when some activists are trying to push the party toward the political center “we feel it’s just the opposite,” said tea party activist Randall Jordan. The state party needs to “go back to the conservative values this county was founded on.”
While the GOP retains pockets of strength around California, Democrats have been increasing their grip on political power in the state for years.
A generation ago California voted reliably Republican in presidential contests. But a surge in immigrants transformed the state and its voting patterns. The number of Hispanics, blacks and Asians combined has outnumbered whites in California since 1998, and the Hispanic population alone is soon expected to surpass whites in the state.
The problem for the GOP: many of those new voters have tilted toward the Democratic Party, according to voter surveys. According to the independent Field Poll, 9 of 10 new voters in the state in the last decade have been Hispanic or Asian.
You’d have to go back a generation to find a Republican presidential candidate who carried the state, George H.W. Bush. In the 2012 presidential race, President Barack Obama received more than 70 percent of the Hispanic and Asian vote.
“Change is always possible, but the trend over the last 20 years in California is decidedly toward the Democratic Party by ethnic voters, said Field pollster Mark DiCamillo.
In 2010, when Republicans scored big victories in Congress and statehouses around the nation, California Democrats made a clean sweep of eight statewide contests. Republican registration in the state has dipped below 29 percent, compared to 44 percent for Democrats.
Party members have long squabbled over the direction of the GOP, particularly social and environmental issues.
In 2011, for example, moderates attempted to push a rewrite of the state party platform that dropped a demand to end virtually all federal and state benefits for people who entered the country illegally and avoided any mention of overturning Roe v. Wade.
During his term, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger warned California Republicans that they were in for a future of disappointment unless they shifted to the political center, seizing issues usually associated with the Democrats, including climate change and health care reform.
Many trace the party’s troubles with Hispanics to 1994, when voters with encouragement from Republican Gov. Pete Wilson enacted Proposition 187, which prohibited immigrants in the country illegally from using health care, education or other social services. The law eventually was overturned, but it left lingering resentment with many Hispanics at a time when the Latinos were becoming increasingly important in state elections.
There are some positive signs.
The state’s top-two primary system has made legislative and congressional races more competitive, and party leaders hope that voters will grow unhappy with one-party rule in Sacramento.
To Adam Abrahms, a regional vice chairman, the party’s core message of fiscal discipline and individual liberty continues to resonate. “We need to get that message out in a better way, to more people, more often,” he said.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.