In their latest effort to rebuild and rebrand, California Republicans turned this weekend to a famed "architect" of GOP victories: Karl Rove.
The top Republican strategist squeezed planning sessions, fundraising and a pep talk to delegates attending a luncheon into a several-hourslong stopover in Sacramento, where California Republicans are convening for their first formal gathering since suffering a shellacking at the ballot last year. He even offered some tough love.
"My message is this," Rove told luncheon attendees. "Get off your ass."
California GOP officials invited the former aide and adviser to President George W. Bush to address attendees as they seek to regroup from a bruising 2012 election.
The party, which holds no statewide office, ceded supermajority control to legislative Democrats, lost key congressional races and dipped below 30 percent in statewide voter registration. The party starts 2013 hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.
Rove conceded that Republicans "don't all know the right answers right now." But he urged party members to evaluate how they communicate, urging the luncheon fundraiser audience to take a more inclusive, broad-based approach to messaging.
"Losing has one great benefit to it," Rove said. "It gives you the chance to start fresh, to look everything anew and start rebuilding from the ground up in innovative and thoughtful ways that will expand our reach and expand our members."
Rove became the center of controversy in some GOP circles earlier this year, after he announced the creation of a new political effort that was viewed as hostile to some tea party supporters. But most hard feelings among California Republicans seemed to have dissipated by the weekend.
His luncheon speech drew an audience of more than 400. Earlier, delegates, legislators and GOP officials filled the penthouse suite of the Hyatt Regency Sacramento for a VIP reception, where dozens paid $300 to stand in line for a photo with Rove.
"He's a motivator, certainly," said state Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, who was part of a group of legislators who met with Rove. "When national figures who have been successful come to (our) convention, that means California is still in play."
Legislators and county GOP chairs who met with Rove in closed-door strategy sessions said he emphasized the importance of a cohesive messaging strategy and adopting better technology to target and turnout voters.
"I think in the last election, we wanted to do better ... and we implemented some baby steps for technology," said Assembly GOP leader Connie Conway, whose caucus lost key seats last year that many observers had considered winnable for Republicans. "Karl has some outstanding ideas and a bigger network than ours, so there's a lot to be learned from him."
Like Rove's speech, much of the party's soul-searching Saturday focused more on recalibrating messaging than shifting positions on issues to make inroads with demographic groups that lean Democratic. Immigration and gay marriage have been seen as particularly challenging for Republicans in their efforts to court Latino and young voters in recent years.
Outgoing party Chairman Tom Del Beccaro predicted that same-sex marriage will be a "difficult issue for a lot of Republicans" for years to come.
He acknowledged that public opinion on gay marriage is shifting -- a Field Poll released last week showed support in California inching over 60 percent -- but said he expects GOP candidates to continue to hold different views on the issue. Del Beccaro, who personally opposes gay marriage, said that issue alone doesn't define the party.
"I think the reality is you're going to find that the Republican Party is going to have members on all sides of this issue for years to come, and I think across this country for years to come it's going to be debated," he said.
Discourse during and leading up to the three-day convention occasionally veered off the inclusive message Rove and others sought to promote.
A leader of the California Republican Assembly, a conservative group within the party, rekindled one of the 2012 campaign's most talked about political controversies. Celeste Greig suggested to a San Jose Mercury News reporter that a woman is less likely to get pregnant if she is raped because "the body is traumatized." At the time, she was criticizing the Missouri U.S. Senate candidate who received national attention for making a similar remark.
Controversy also brewed over a Facebook post a woman who heads a local chapter of the Republican Women Federated reportedly wrote accusing CRP vice chair candidate Harmeet Dhillon, a San Francisco attorney who is Sikh, of being sympathetic to an Islamic radical suspected of murder.
Fliers circulated Saturday during the convention also blasted Dhillon as a "token candidate ... not worthy of being trusted as she repeatedly tries to undermine and tarnish integrity of U.S. Born patriotic Republicans including other women from more voter dominant cultural heritage."
Those statements were quickly condemned by the Republican Women Federated's statewide organization, party leaders and elected officials.
"Our party is a party that reacted quickly," Rep. Darrell Issa said as he commended Dhillon during Saturday's luncheon. "I look forward to working with you in the years to come, and I'm honored to be able to say I became more aware of your candidacy because some dummy said it wrong."
Call Torey Van Oot, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5544. Follow her on Twitter @capitolalert. Bee staff writer Jeremy B. White contributed to this report. ___
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