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California GOP surviving but still struggling for a vision, candidates who align with voters

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SACRAMENTO, California — California Republicans achieved their modest goals last year of preventing Democrats from securing a two-thirds majority in both houses of the state Legislature and rescuing the party from debt. Those gains don't add up to a lot, but at least the party still has a seat at the table in Democratic California.

As Republicans meet in Sacramento this weekend to plot their strategy for the next two years, their long-term challenges are stark.

With party registration at 28 percent after several years of decline, demographics are not in their favor. Democrats stand at 43 percent and 23 percent are independents who are not affiliated with any party.

The announcement last month by U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer that she will not seek re-election next year highlights another huge problem for the party: its paucity of viable candidates for high office. In what should be a blockbuster political contest, California Republicans so far have no competitive candidate to challenge the only announced candidate, state Attorney General Kamala Harris, although a former state party chairman and an assemblyman from San Diego County have opened exploratory committees.

A Field Poll last week found that former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a Republican, would be an automatic front-runner in the Senate rate, but she's not interested in the job.

"This is not a great moment for the California Republican Party," said Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor with expertise in state politics.

Harmeet Dhillon, the party's vice chairwoman, said the some "marginal candidates" will probably appear next to the GOP name in the 2016 U.S. Senate race, but that does not mean the party has no heavyweights.

"Several members of our congressional delegation could beat her," she said, referring to the only announced candidate, Democratic Attorney General Kamala Harris. "But they don't want to give up their seniority in Congress."

The party ran a diverse, youthful slate of candidates in November, and it made gains in the state Legislature. Still, the GOP's hopes of capturing electing a statewide office were dashed again when their moderate candidates for secretary of state and controller lost resoundingly.

PHOTO: FILE - In this file photo from Friday, June 13, 2014, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, left, shakes hands with California gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari, right, at the end of a visit to Hoogasian Flowers in San Francisco. California Republicans achieved their modest goals of last year by preventing Democrats from achieving a two-thirds majority in both houses of the state Legislature and rescuing the party's finances. The longer term challenges for for Republicans in California are more stark. Party delegates meet this weekend in Sacramento. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
FILE - In this file photo from Friday, June 13, 2014, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, left, shakes hands with California gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari, right, at the end of a visit to Hoogasian Flowers in San Francisco. California Republicans achieved their modest goals of last year by preventing Democrats from achieving a two-thirds majority in both houses of the state Legislature and rescuing the party's finances. The longer term challenges for for Republicans in California are more stark. Party delegates meet this weekend in Sacramento. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Diversions help, so some Republicans will revel in the competitive presidential race instead. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a possible 2016 presidential candidate, will address a luncheon on Saturday, then meet behind closed doors with county GOP chairs and Republican state lawmakers.

The gathering, however, also comes with a backdrop of more political dysfunction in Washington, where Republicans were threatening a partial shutdown of funding for Homeland Security over the Obama administration's immigration policies.

Those headlines only hurt the party's image in California, making it appear out of step with Californians' values, Levinson said.

"The California Republican Party will really have to be careful about styling itself in a way that is palatable and appetizing to Californians," she said. "This is the state that elected Ronald Reagan. Being a California Republican has oftentimes denoted something different than just being a Republican."

Delegates are also slated this weekend to take up a potentially divisive request by the pro-gay Log Cabin Republicans, who are seeking to become an officially chartered arm of the party. The national organization has 10 California chapters, and its members worked hard on several legislative campaigns last year, Log Cabin Chairman Charles Moran said.

"This gives us that legitimacy, that the Republican Party is serious about reaching out that tent and bringing more people in. That's why this is important to us," Moran said.

The group agreed to put off its request for official recognition last year out of fear that infighting over the proposal could give the party a black eye in an election year.

A party offshoot called GROW Elect has been recruiting Latino candidates for office, but it has mostly targeted local races. The party still feels the effect of Proposition 187, the 1994 ballot measure supported by then-Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, that sought to ban immigrants who are in the country illegally from receiving most social services.

There is more upbeat news on the financial front. Chairman Jim Brulte was elected two years ago with a mandate to get the party's financial house in order, and the party ended the year with $937,000 in its campaign account and $137,000 in debts, a turnaround from its deep debts just a few years ago.

Brulte has also sought to tamp down the infighting that had become an embarrassing hallmark of the party's twice-yearly meetings, and he has been mostly successful at doing so. His proposal to for the party to hold its convention just once a year rather than twice is not on the weekend agenda, however.

On Sunday, delegates will consider whether to re-elect Brulte and Dhillon. Both are expected to be unopposed.

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PHOTO: FILE - In this file photo from Friday, June 13, 2014, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, left, shakes hands with California gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari, right, at the end of a visit to Hoogasian Flowers in San Francisco. California Republicans achieved their modest goals of last year by preventing Democrats from achieving a two-thirds majority in both houses of the state Legislature and rescuing the party's finances. The longer term challenges for for Republicans in California are more stark. Party delegates meet this weekend in Sacramento. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
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