Lara Trump’s R.N.C. Sets Its Sights on—California?

On my way to the California Republican convention, my mom, who has lived in the Bay Area for decades, asked why I would even bother going to such a sideshow. “It’s a blue state,” she said. “Democrats run it.” I rattled off reasons: California has the most registered Republicans of any state. Six competitive districts there could determine whether the G.O.P. keeps control of the House of Representatives in November. Donald Trump’s campaign has raised more from individual donors in California than anywhere else in the country. The national MAGA celebrities Lara Trump and Kristi Noem were flying in as honored guests. When I arrived at the airport Hyatt in Burlingame, just south of San Francisco, Republican delegates streamed in wearing T-shirts with Trump’s mugshot, and the white-and-gold MAGA hats I hadn’t seen since the Iowa caucuses. There were booths selling “The World of Soros: Influencing Elections” and shirts featuring Governor Gavin Newsom—who had just visited the Vatican for a climate summit—with a Hitler mustache.

As I browsed an array of sequinned gold purses shaped like handguns, a woman handed me a flyer for a poolside Judeo-Christian Caucus event, featuring John Eastman as a special guest. The day before, Eastman, one of Trump’s former lawyers, had been arraigned in Arizona on charges related to the 2020 fake-elector scheme, but he’d still made it to Burlingame in time to host a cocktail reception and a photo opportunity (a hundred dollars per individual or couple; twenty-five dollars for each extra body). Eastman, who pleaded not guilty, has also been suspended from practicing law in California, pending disbarment proceedings, for alleged “exceptionally serious ethical violations.” Still, like Noem, here he was a star, not a pariah. In the outside world, Noem, the governor of South Dakota, had recently short-circuited the news cycle after writing in her memoir about shooting her young dog, Cricket; at the convention, away from the backlash, her leadership was an aspirational blueprint for the Golden State.

Attendees had paid three hundred dollars for a banquet lunch with Noem, who, despite the dog-shooting disclosure, was packaging herself as a possible Trump Vice-Presidential running mate. As she posed for photos, wearing a lavender sheath dress, caterers were setting out spinach salads, cheesecake, and iced tea; a copy of her memoir, “No Going Back,” was on each seat. Jeff Gorman, the Monterey County Republican Party chair, who wore a hat that read “Californians for Trump,” told me that he liked what Noem had written about growing up on her family farm. “It’s a great American story,” he said. “She’s a great American story.” What about the dog thing? “You’re talking to ranch people,” his tablemate said. “That’s how we do it.” It reminded me of how unfazed Trump rally-goers are by his court cases and what they see as other examples of liberal hand-wringing. A delegate from San Joaquin County told me, “I know when you work in newspapers, you take something and you translate it. She’ll be the Vice-President.”

After an intro video that could have been a commercial for “Yellowstone”—Noem, on horseback, as the words “American Spirit. American Courage. American Grit” flashed across the screen—the Governor entered to “Whatever It Takes,” by Imagine Dragons. She told the crowd, “I’m not a dictator.” (Standing ovation.) “At the end of the day, what people in this country are hungry for is someone who is just normal,” she went on. “Hope is optimism with a plan.” (Trump on the dog controversy: “We all have bad weeks.”) Afterward, Mona Graham, a delegate from Sacramento, told me, “When she talked about her state, I thought, We could make California that way again. We were Republican for a really long time. It made it feel possible to feel free here.”

In the hotel lobby, where clusters of Delta flight crews waited to be shuttled back to the airport, I stood with Harmeet Dhillon, California’s R.N.C. national committeewoman and one of Trump’s election lawyers. “President Trump has bluntly asked me, ‘Do you think I’m going to win California?’ ” she said. “And I’ve awkwardly had to answer, like, ‘Well, sir, I wouldn’t focus here.’ He says, ‘People tell me—I think I can win California.’ ” She went on, “He’s an optimist.” Last year, when the California G.O.P. convened next to Disneyland, Trump told the crowd, “No way we lose this state in a real election.”

The weekend in Burlingame had a bit of this through-the-looking-glass quality. While Jennifer Korn, a former special assistant to Trump, was addressing delegates from the Central Valley, where two of the up-for-grabs House seats are situated, she said, “Melania is doing great. Their marriage is great, they love each other, they’re good.”At a California MAGA session, a January 6th participant said, “It was a peaceful, patriotic day.” Dhillon told a group about suing Google for allegedly diverting R.N.C. e-mails to people’s junk folders. “It’s important to not go down the rabbit hole of conspiracy and innuendo,” she said. (Google has moved to dismiss the case.) A delegate from Los Angeles County pulled me aside near a water cooler and told me to look into the International Monetary Fund. Wine—“Republican Red”—was out for tasting, and Newsom’s California felt far away.

At each session, I got the impression of an embattled movement, going on the offensive. Given that the state could decide the fate of the House, Republican efforts there may not be as futile as they seem. The R.N.C.’s California director reminded attendees that, in 2022, a five-million-dollar investment had helped them gain a Republican seat and flip the House red. But the Party was also focussed on persuading its voters that the election will be conducted fairly. “There’s one thing that socialist and communist countries have in common, and that is that they don’t have free, fair elections,” Brian Jones, the minority leader of the California State Senate, said, in an election-integrity committee meeting. “When there’s free, fair elections, Republicans actually win.” The California G.O.P.’s election-integrity committee formed days after the 2020 election, when, as one of its founders put it, “a lot of Republicans did not have confidence in the electoral process.” In advance of the November election, they’ve recruited more than forty-two hundred election-integrity volunteers and conducted more than a hundred election-integrity trainings. “We’re able to be the canary in the coal mine,” Dhillon told me. “You’re still in the coal mine, but you can be the early-warning system.”

The weekend was also California’s introduction to Lara Trump as the co-chair of the R.N.C. At the R.N.C.’s spring meeting, in Houston, when she and Michael Whatley were installed as the group’s new leaders, after Ronna McDaniel stepped down, many delegates had spoken about a proverbial new day: no more subservience to the establishment, mired in association with Mitt Romney-esque ideals. The new R.N.C., under Lara and Whatley, would focus on the grass roots. Lara also frequently gestures at the possibility of a rigged election. “We can never allow what happened in 2020 and questions surrounding that election to ever happen again,” she said, two days after being voted in. Since then, the R.N.C. has unveiled plans to deploy a hundred thousand poll-watchers; it also wants to recruit poll workers who can physically handle ballots. “We are leaving nothing to chance,” Lara said last month. In Burlingame, there was a sense of excitement that leadership was making a national talking point of election integrity, that it could help California’s Republican Party become more MAGA than RINO.

“Let’s be honest, the R.N.C. is an élitist institution,” Dhillon, the national committeewoman, told me. “That said, some of the members of the R.N.C. are more grassroots than others, meaning they’re closer down to the ground than up in the stars. So it means they take time to listen to and care about what the voters think, not just what the puppeteers and the powerful people who pull the levers in Sacramento or D.C. or New York want.” I asked Dhillon how the new leadership was progressing. “There’s no space between them and the Trump campaign,” she said. “That is kind of the genesis of their leadership changes. We are the Trump campaign.”

After an afternoon of sessions—poll observing, Catholic Mass, lawfare—delegates who paid four hundred dollars queued for the evening banquet with Lara. The California G.O.P.’s finance chair asked her a series of softball, get-to-know-you questions. Lara, who wore a black dress and black Louboutin heels, told the crowd that she loves blackened salmon and chocolate dessert, and that if she could meet one figure in history, it would be Queen Elizabeth I. (“I’d like to try some of those outfits.”) She recounted the moment when Trump called her and suggested she take the co-chair job. (“Honey, we need you.”) It was clear that her main function at the R.N.C. was to be a surrogate for her father-in-law.

Dhillon led the room in prayer: “For us to be able to reclaim this country from the leftward forces of Marxism, nihilism, and godlessness.” “This is California—who knows, folks, right?” Lara said, with a laugh. “We’re going to expand this map this year, ladies and gentlemen. That map, when you look on November 5th, that evening, it’s going to be redder than you’ve ever seen it before.” She vowed “to expand this tent for future elections.” In 2023, under McDaniel, the R.N.C. had its lowest fund-raising year in a decade; at an April dinner in Palm Beach, Florida, the Trump campaign and the R.N.C. raised a record-breaking $50.5 million in a single evening. “We’re bringing in people from our grass roots who for whatever reason were never embraced by the R.N.C.,” Lara said.

Johanna Lassaga, a rice and cattle farmer from Yuba County, waited in a long line to take a paid photo with Lara. “The fact that she’s in California is amazing,” Lassaga told me. “Ronna was never here. You never felt her support.” Lassaga’s friend Mona Graham, the delegate from Sacramento, came over with Cosmopolitans and a glass of champagne. “We were a divided party,” Graham said. “People used to feel like the R.N.C. was more on the establishment side, doing more to hold Trump back. Trump walks into a party of country-club Republicans and, even though he has his own country club, they look at him like he’s a yahoo.” She went on, “Lara is a heck of a fund-raiser. Now, if the money trickles down from the R.N.C., the grass roots feel like it’s trickling down from Trump.”

The night before Lara’s speech, I went to a poolside cigar-and-chocolate event, hosted by the R.N.C. committeeman Shawn Steel. There was a sense of both momentum and futility. “I’m setting my sights a bit low,” one delegate said to another. “I’m in Berkeley.” In the liberal imagination, the G.O.P. has been completely overtaken by people in sequinned Trump pins; at the hotel pool, away from the paid banquets, the stars-and-stripes faction mingled with a more subdued crowd. Bill Jackson, who lives in San Francisco, where registered Republicans make up only seven per cent of the population, told me he’d been a Never Trumper until recently. “There was a sclerosis of regulation,” he said. “I have a sense of sorrow. The right has captured the moderate. Most people here, they’re not the radical true believers who are going to pick up a hammer—they’re along for the ride.” Jackson is a co-founder of the Briones Society, “a constituency of voters in San Francisco who are tired of virtue signalling from the left and conspiracy theories from the right.” He mentioned that Steve Garvey, the baseball star turned Republican candidate, who was running for an open Senate seat against Adam Schiff, had made the strategic decision not to show up at the Party convention—“He knows he’ll get more votes if he’s not seen among, you know, the red-meat-tossing people.”

Ryan Christie, a delegate from Humboldt, was looking for somewhere to ash his cigar. “It’s been surreal,” he said, of the convention. “I don’t think Trump is a good candidate. I’m a centrist. Still, there are more regular people getting involved since Trump. When I was a kid it was a party for people like Dick Cheney.” What about Noem and Lara? He was going to skip them both to go to a baseball game. ♦

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