Can Carl DeMaio save the California GOP?

Can Carl DeMaio save the California GOP?
© Courtesy of Carl DeMaio

The most interesting thing about Carl DeMaio is not that he would be the first out gay Republican elected to Congress.

The Southern California activist, who has a compelling personal history and a track record of offending the establishment on both sides, is not only trying to take down incumbent Duncan HunterDuncan Duane HunterHouse Ethics Committee informs Duncan Hunter he can no longer vote after guilty plea The Hill's Morning Report - Dem impeachment report highlights phone records Duncan Hunter pleads guilty after changing plea MORE, whose family name has ruled the district for half a century, but DeMaio also wants to reinvent the modern Republican campaign — and lead the decimated California GOP out of the wilderness while doing it.

In announcing a primary challenge to scandal-plagued Hunter, DeMaio has merely extended his record of taking on tough fights, and he’s electrified a GOP grassroots whose representatives were washed away in 2018 from the once-mighty Republican strongholds surrounding San Diego.

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In his first 24 hours as a candidate, DeMaio broke fundraising records for a Republican Congressional candidate — and then did so again days later. In a recent phone conversation with me, DeMaio attributed this success to his record of “fighting the fights that some people think are unwinnable,” on behalf of a put-upon middle class in California. This includes leading the spectacular recall election of a State Senator who voted to increase California’s gas tax, and championing its repeal — as well as irking the leftist LGBT establishment with his mere existence when he ran for Congress in 2014.

Back then, he was the subject of a smear campaign weeks before Election Day, losing narrowly in large part due to accusations that proved false and landed his accuser a five-year probation sentence for obstruction of justice. DeMaio’s experience being hung out to dry by LGBT advocacy organizations that only support Democrats, and the “boatload of venom” he endured from the left as a gay Republican, led him to a specific distaste for an LGBT establishment whose primary constituent is the Democratic Party.

DeMaio lays out his arguments with an impatience honed from years as a serial entrepreneur, and with a fighting spirit he learned from grave personal experience: As an adolescent he witnessed his mother battle a six-month cancer prognosis for six and a half years, leaving him orphaned at the age of 15. This fostered in him the will to take on big fights without self-pity: “She did her fight, and did it with a smile.”

And DeMaio has big battles to wage. Between taking on the California Democrats and the Hunter dynasty, he has little time for a feeble GOP establishment that prefers to sit on its hands as its numbers dwindle: “They don’t want to rock the boat, and that’s all we can do,” he told me. Indeed, relegated to super-minority status in our nation’s largest state, the first step for California Republicans should be to champion — loudly — working people who are being chased out of the state in droves.

He is particularly enthusiastic when discussing what GOP politicos need to learn from Democrats. In 2018, scores of charismatic first-time candidates, armed with buzzy YouTube announcements, garnered eye-popping fundraising numbers and overwhelmed long-time Republican incumbents to seize control of the House. Like the Democrats, Republicans “need to treat our five dollar donors like our five thousand dollar donors,” DeMaio said — as well as show voters across the country why each House race matters, “why somebody sitting in Atlanta needs to write a check for a good, viable candidate in Southern California.”

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To that end, DeMaio has eschewed many elements of the traditional GOP campaign, such as purchasing “a list” — thousands of email addresses of potential supporters — or outsourcing communications work to vendors. Building enthusiasm for his race is harder than buying it, but DeMaio seems willing to do the hard work himself.

DeMaio, the entrepreneur, seems to grasp what many of the dinosaurs in Congress do not: that politicians are brands, that authenticity cannot be copied and pasted by an email vendor, and that the conservative movement needs to catch up in its projection of soft power — “from apparel to podcasts.”

To that end, fresh voices matter to the GOP. DeMaio knows he looks and sounds a little different than the standard Republican fare and that being a gay man who could actually win poses a potentially mortal threat to the Democratic “scam on identity politics.”

Understanding the value of minority candidates — and the need for Republicans to get out and fight for communities the GOP tends to ignore — has prompted DeMaio to announce another bold, national idea that reaches far beyond San Diego County, a plan to remake the Republican Party by electing more diverse Republicans to Congress.

In many ways, DeMaio cuts a classic GOP figure of Reagan’s sunny California, with a Teflon attitude of the “happy warrior” — a phrase he mentions more than once over 45 minutes on the phone.

But with more than a hint of the fiery populism that propelled Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrumps light 97th annual National Christmas Tree Trump to hold campaign rally in Michigan 'Don't mess with Mama': Pelosi's daughter tweets support following press conference comments MORE into office — and the tea party movement before that — DeMaio could also fuse this older GOP archetype into something particularly pertinent to the political moment.

If he prevails, DeMaio will be well-positioned to join young guns like Dan CrenshawDaniel CrenshawHouse GOP criticizes impeachment drive as distracting from national security issues Saagar Enjeti: Crenshaw's conservatism will doom future of GOP Conservatives seek to stifle new 'alt-right' movement steeped in anti-Semitism MORE (R-Texas) on the Hill, as well as more seasoned veterans like Nikki HaleyNimrata (Nikki) HaleyTrump: Kellyanne Conway 'must have done some bad things' to 'crazy' husband Trump says Pence will remain on 2020 ticket: 'He's our man 100 percent' Tillerson: Using American aid for 'some kind of personal gain [is] wrong' MORE, in answering a sinking question for Republicans: What happens after Trump?

From today’s vantage point, DeMaio has the potential to emerge as a generational Republican leader, not just for taking down a wounded giant and creating a case study for a nationalized Congressional campaign on the right, but for representing a new message in an era where Americans — and younger Americans in particular — have grown tired of stale conservative voices.

Brandishing a well-polished message from years in the public light, and championing a unique vision as well as the means to amplify it, Carl DeMaio sounds like a man ready to take on California, and the world.

But first, he needs to win.

Albert Eisenberg is a Philadelphia-based political consultant who works on LGBT and urban issues from the right. He formerly served as communications director for the Philadelphia Republican Party and director of social media for the Young Republicans National Federation. Follow him on Twitter @Albydelphia