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Calif. Republicans Leery Of Being Perceived As Too Close To Trump

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There is an identity crisis in the California Republican Party. They've been losing ground in recent years, and President Trump is not popular with a lot of Californians. So the question is whether to wave the Make America Great Again hat in the air or to build a different GOP brand. Capital Public Radio's Ben Bradford reports on how this is playing out in the race for one coveted congressional seat.

BEN BRADFORD, BYLINE: The California Republican Party has tied itself to President Trump. There's perhaps no better example than the slew of Republican-led cities and counties joining the Trump administration in a lawsuit against California.

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KRISTIN GASPAR: We're sending a clear message to Governor Brown.

BRADFORD: Kristin Gaspar chairs the San Diego County Board of Supervisors. She spoke on Fox News after the county voted to oppose California's new sanctuary protections for undocumented immigrants.

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GASPAR: Enough is enough. He needs to follow the Constitution. He can't attempt to undermine federal immigration laws.

BRADFORD: Gaspar is one of several Republican candidates running to replace retiring Congressman Darrell Issa in northern San Diego County. Most are appealing to committed Republican voters enthused by the Trump campaign's messages. That's what the party did last year at its state convention with Steve Bannon as the keynote speaker.

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STEVE BANNON: Build the wall. Right?

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BANNON: Protect our southern border.

BRADFORD: But some prominent Republicans fear embracing that message from a president whose popularity is hovering around 30 percent in the state.

ROCKY CHAVEZ: They're taking us into a desert that has no water at the end of it, and we're going to die in that desert.

BRADFORD: State Assemblyman Rocky Chavez is another candidate for Darrell Issa's seat. Chavez says adopting the president's nationalist rhetoric won't help win back California Latino and Asian voters who've largely rejected the GOP.

CHAVEZ: This whole tariff thing and putting up walls, that's crazy.

BRADFORD: Chavez joined a group of Republicans last month in Los Angeles to discuss shifting the party's message.

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ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER: Today we are here because the soul of our great Republican Party, it inspired each and every one of us. It's worth fighting for.

BRADFORD: Former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is the last Republican elected to statewide office. The group calls itself New Way California. They're looking to compromise with Democrats. Take this ad the group launched.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (As narrator) Climate change is real. California Republicans believe it and are working to address it.

BRADFORD: Instead of battling over divisive issues like illegal immigration, New Way leaders want to focus on an economic case that California's problems are rooted in high state taxes and overregulation. Chavez describes it as the key to winning Issa's 49th congressional district seat.

CHAVEZ: There's actually going to be a litmus test in the 49th, how Republicans can win in a coastal community that it's thought was going red to blue. We're going to stop it.

BRADFORD: The New Way pitch found traction with Ruben Guerra, who runs the Latin Business Association in Los Angeles. He's a Democrat who voted for Schwarzenegger.

RUBEN GUERRA: Some of these regulations and some of these laws, even I say come on, guys. Really? Wake up. So I don't care whether it's Republican or Democrat.

BRADFORD: But party officials do not want to moderate. Harmeet Dhillon represents California on the Republican National Committee.

HARMEET DHILLON: Becoming Democrat-light may be a way for one or two guys to hold their current jobs at a hundred-thousand-dollar salaries. It is a recipe for disaster for a party.

BRADFORD: Political analysts generally favor Democrats to flip Issa's seat. If Republicans manage to hold on, how they do it could serve as a blueprint for the party going forward. For NPR News, I'm Ben Bradford. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.