Local Trump supporters looking to bring change to GOP in days ahead

Bill and Shirley Thomas outside their home in Long Beach. Their Trump signs were stolen three times before the election, they say, but this latest sign has lasted about five weeks.
Bill and Shirley Thomas outside their home in Long Beach. Their Trump signs were stolen three times before the election, they say, but this latest sign has lasted about five weeks.
Mary Plummer/KPCC

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For the past few months, Gala Caprice Cruz has been running the volunteer operation for Donald Trump in northern Los Angeles County.

Cruz sent emails, organized events, and used Facebook to get Trump's message out in a state that is one of the bluest in the nation.

She had not been very involved in politics, and until last spring had been registered to vote without a party affiliation. But she immersed herself in the Trump campaign, registered as Republican before the primary, then watched her candidate capture the presidency with a stunning win of the electoral vote.

Election Day brought the whirlwind of activity around her to an abrupt halt.

"It’s kind of been a letdown," she said with a laugh as she and other volunteers lunched recently at the Westfield Valencia Town Center in Santa Clarita.

Cruz and other Trump supporters are now looking ahead to their next move as they prepare to carry the president-elect's banner in deep-blue California.

Like many Americans around the country, Cruz felt fed up with politics before Trump's campaign. But Trump delivered a message she connected with: she liked that he talked about bringing back jobs and getting tough on immigration. She also liked his vision for foreign affairs and his plans to lower taxes.

Christine Callender felt that way, too. She and Cruz worked together to rally Trump volunteers and organize events to help the campaign.

Like Cruz, she now sees an opportunity to bring more people into the Republican Party.

"There's such an energy, such a charge," she said. "This is the time."

Cruz has already joined a local Republican women’s group and she has ambitions to help shape the party’s future. She'd like to see the party broaden its reach — to millennials and to people not registered as Republicans.

But not everyone thinks embracing Trump will elevate Republicans in California.

"The situation for Republicans is as grim in California as it is bright outside the state," said Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

He said since California voters rejected Trump’s brand of Republicanism, there's a chance that the state party could be hurt, not helped, by embracing Trump’s message.

The state took a separate path from much of the country in the election: California voters opted to legalize recreational marijuana, elect Democrat Kamala Harris to the U.S. Senate, and overwhelmingly back Hillary Clinton for president.

California’s growing Latino and Asian populations are growing and that's a trend Pitney said helps Democrats. Another change: more voters are declaring themselves independents.

"[An] increasing number of Californians are registering as decline to state [a party preference], but the election returns indicate the Democrats are doing a better job of mobilizing and attracting those voters," Pitney said.

Down in Long Beach, Republican Bill Thomas walks through his front yard where a Trump sign is neatly planted.

In this heavily Democratic neighborhood, Thomas said he and his wife Shirley have had their Trump sign stolen three times. This latest one has lasted about five weeks. 

Inside his home over tea, Thomas said Trump’s election gives him hope that he and other local Republicans can now “Make California Great Again,” a local version of Trump's campaign theme.

Thomas plans to help educate Trump backers on the party's conservative values and encourage them to stay involved.

"I’m looking into the future, and saying if we want to get California more conservative again then we need this kind of support and enthusiasm," he said.

He and GOP party leaders in California have their eyes on the 2018 elections when they hope to make gains in the Democrat-controlled state legislature and solidify the Republicans' hold of Congress.

Thomas' wife Shirley spent nearly every day working at Trump's Long Beach headquarters before the election. She wants to see California’s Republican Party grow, too, but she’s not as optimistic about change as her husband.

She said a lot of people she met just weren’t interested in party politics and couldn’t have cared less which party Trump represented. They just liked him.

"Getting Trump elected was not a Republican election. It was a Trump election," she said.

Whatever the motivation of Trump supporters, local GOP officials are ready to welcome them into their party ranks.

"There are different layers of Trump supporters, and there are many that were never involved in politics," said Mark Vafiades, chairman of the Los Angeles County Republican Party. "They want to keep, keep on going and that's exactly what we're going to do."