Former Gov. Pete Wilson rarely makes big speeches these days. But the 82-year-old Republican made a surprise appearance at the state GOP convention Saturday to give an impassioned endorsement of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz — that sounded just as much like an indictment of Donald Trump.
“My friends, we cannot afford a Republican nominee that brings us down-ticket decimation of our 2014 hard-won midterm gains,” Wilson said. “Never has the California Republican primary election been so critical to the future of our nation.”
Trump’s insurgent and unorthodox candidacy has ignited a schism between party leaders like Wilson and Republican activists like Cheryl McDonald, from Discovery Bay in Contra Costa County.
“He’s a go-getter,” McDonald said. She was wearing red, white and blue clothes and a matching cowboy hat with electric lights. Minutes after Trump spoke to the convention Friday, she declared her loyalty.
“He’s gonna go, and he’s gonna fight for all of us and make America great,” she said. “And that’s what we need. And he’s the only one who can beat Hillary!”
California Republicans love Donald Trump. Unless, that is, they hate him.
“He’s the Kardashian of politics,” Republican consultant Rob Stutzman said. He and two other GOP strategists are leading an uphill fight to stop Trump in California. He sees the New York mogul as all sizzle, no steak. And he’s not buying Trump’s outsider message.
“To be anti-establishment and truly a person of the party should still be a principled conservative in order to be the Republican nominee and lead the Republican Party,” Stutzman said. “Donald Trump’s not a conservative. He certainly isn’t principled.”
Another big concern for Republicans: How will Trump — or even Ted Cruz — affect the party’s efforts to fix its dreadful image among Latinos? Strategist Mike Madrid was hired by the party two years after voters passed the anti-immigrant Proposition 187, which awakened a generation of Latino activism.
“In many ways it’s a little heartbreaking to look back 20 years later and come to the same convention where the same issues really have not resolved themselves, but in many ways gotten worse,” Madrid lamented Saturday. He wasn’t too thrilled about Wilson’s endorsement of Cruz either.
Asked whether he would have a hard time voting for Cruz or Trump, Madrid said “extremely.”
“I certainly won’t vote for Hillary Clinton,” Madrid said. “California’s not going to go Republican in November anyway. I don’t really have to torture myself too long about that decision.”
Jaime Patino from Union City thinks Trump has good ideas and that he means well. But he says “there are times I do cringe when I hear him speak.”
Patino, the lone Republican in a family full of Democrats, admits he’s troubled by Trump’s characterization of Mexican immigrants and women.
“It looks like Trump will become the nominee,” Patino said. “If he is, I’ll back him. But I’m going to have to do some soul-searching, to be honest with you.”
California Republicans are an endangered species. Just 28 percent of the state’s voters are registered with the party, compared with the 43 percent who are registered Democrats. Although this primary has voters’ attention, California Republican Party Chairman Jim Brulte seems eager to get past it so he can get back to what they think is most important.
“Focusing on city council races, county supervisors, electing school board members,” Brulte said. “That’s what we’re focused on.”
Brulte didn’t even mention the U.S. Senate race, where the three top Republicans together captured 10 percent of the support in the last Field Poll. He knows it’s hopeless.
But while Brulte may want to focus on down-ballot races for now, everyone else is focused at the top of the ticket.