Jim Brulte said in his candidacy speech to the San Diego Republican Central Committee that he wanted to be “a boring state party chair focused on the nuts and bolts.” He said it wasn’t a matter of new ideas, Republican ideas are fine thank you. Brulte announced he would focus on fundraising, volunteers and candidates rather than on policy and issues.
As an example of Republican organizations that have the “nuts and bolts” right, Brulte said look no farther than the San Diego Central Committee where he chose to announce. Curious about Brulte’s head up, I had a chance recently to ask Ron Nehring why Brulte singled out San Diego as an exemplar. Nehring referred me to his 2002 article, Turnaround in San Diego and the Five Point Program he championed to breath new life into a fractious central committee as the incoming chairman. In Turnaround Nehring says to win statewide, Republicans need to win big in four regions: San Diego, Orange, Inland Empire and the Central Valley. Nehring notes that California laws weaken political parties (a legacy of the Progressive Era) but that “some country chairmen have built strong organizations anyway. The secret lies in clearly defining the party’s role.”
Nehring’s 2002 Five Point Program for San Diego included, 1) voter registration, 2) GOTV and precinct operations, 3) inspire activists and volunteers, 4) integrate electeds and 5) raise funds. Brulte’s 2013 Three Point Program for California includes 1) fundraising, 2) rebuilding the volunteer base and 3) finding and supporting good candidates.
Brilliant tactical minds think alike.
In his 2002 article Nehring elaborates, speaking of “ideological divisions paralyzing county central committees.” This is unnecessary, he says. There is no liberal way to register voters, no conservative way to raise money, no moderate way to get out the vote, he argues.
In fact, in my brief conversation with Nehring, he said that ideological infighting is most aggressive and destructive where the party organization is failing on the nuts and bolts. Nehring told me that as 2001 incoming San Diego chair he brought in great speakers (Grover Norquist, Ward Connerly, etc.), moved the monthly meeting out of a dingy office into an upscale hotel and instituted a meet and greet social hour. Ideological battles fell by the wayside and precinct work, voter registration and fundraising increased dramatically.
Given the current state of the party, a focus on the nuts and bolts would be good for the CRP. Brulte’s point 2, (rebuild the volunteer base), subsumes Nehring’s points 1 through 3, (voter registration, GOTV and inspire the activists.) All are the work of well run central committees. The CRP should export the San Diego model to where it could do some good.
Brulte’s point 3 (find and support candidates) is crucial, both a technical and a people challenge. On Nehring’s website, San Diego electoral data from MPI Consultants is posted in a PowerPoint slide show. Nehring has gone to the experts for a detailed analysis of the electoral numbers in his home county. Similar analytic work needs to be done statewide. Numbers should be crunched for every race from school board to US congress so the party can find and support the right people.
On fundraising, Brulte and Nehring also agree. But there are tough questions. In the Bay Area, my home base, we have many wealthy donors but few local opportunities. In Los Angeles, Orange and Imperial Counties there are perhaps both donors and opportunities. In the Central Valley and far north, there may be fewer donors but many opportunities.
Do we raise funds for local races and organizations only? Do we hoard or share? How do we balance needs and opportunities with the reality of where the donors live and with donors’ issues and policy concerns? How do we forge a truly statewide, big tent party?
Finally, although a less ideological CRP is a good idea in the short run, the “nuts and bolts” model may eventually break down. A “nuts and bolts” focus is politically wise for an incoming chair inheriting a broken, fractious party, but issues and policy cannot be permanently avoided.
A recent VCStar article opines:
“It remains to be seen how long Brulte can ignore issues and focus on the strictly practical parts of party-building. For as even he implies, unless Republicans move themselves more into line with public sentiment on major issues, it won’t matter how much money the party raises or how many volunteers and candidates it recruits.”
I would counter that the CRP can avoid “moving into line with [liberal] public sentiment,” only by re-defining and renewing conservatism. A “nuts and bolts” approach that assumes re-definition is unnecessary—that we have only to “communicate” better— is an inadequate response to a growing crisis of demography and ideas. On the other hand, becoming moderate Democrats-lite is a surrender of principles and political suicide.
If “nuts and bolts” means making the tougher issue calls only after the mechanics have been addressed and the party is on the rebound then it makes a lot of sense. My guess is that our saavy leaders know this.