An e-mail by an Orange County Republican Party official that shows President Obama’s face superimposed on a chimpanzee is a fresh blow for a state Republican Party already teetering on the brink of political irrelevance.
State party officials have categorically condemned the e-mail by Marilyn Davenport, which shows the altered picture of Obama with the caption: “Now you know why – No birth certificate!” California Republican Party Chairman Tom Del Beccaro said "the actions in question are completely unacceptable.”
Yet the fact that a Republican official in Orange County – sometimes called “the most Republican county in the US" – so obviously endorses the "birther" movement and promoted it in a borderline racist e-mail runs the risk of confirming negative GOP stereotypes for some California voters.
“This underscores the problems that the Republican Party is having in the state of California, and spotlights the perception they are having nationally that the GOP is white, conservative, and sometimes insensitive to race," says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at the School of Policy, Planning, and Development at the University of Southern California.
As immigration has recast California and helped push it left of center, the Republican Party has adamantly stayed true to the small government, anti-illegal immigration credo that emerged from Orange County in the 1980s and made the party a potent political force through the early '90s.
More recently, however, that platform has been an electoral stumbling block. For the second time since 1882, no Republican was elected to statewide office last November. (The other time was 2002.) Moreover, Republicans are only three seats away – one in the Assembly and two in the Senate – from being outnumbered 2 to 1 in each chamber of the California Legislature.
Ms. Davenport apologized for the e-mail Monday. “I wasn’t wise in sending the e-mail out. I shouldn’t have done it. I really wasn’t thinking when I did it.”
The monkey caricature is not necessarily racist, some political experts note. President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld – all white – have been targets of monkey comparisons online, with one famous critic calling Bush “Curious George."
But political experts say the damage is done. Several activist groups have called for Davenport’s resignation, and the state party is trying to distance itself.
Orange County Republican Chairman Scott Baugh has called for Davenport to resign, saying the e-mail was "dripping with racism and is in very poor taste."
“The actions of a single misguided, or possibly racist, Republican should not reflect badly on the Republican Party as a whole,” he says. “It has been made clear by leaders of the Republican Party in Orange County that they do not approve of the actions of Marilyn Davenport and such action was not an official Republican Party e-mail.”
At best for the state GOP, it is an opportunity to clarify what the party is all about.
“Kudos to the California Republicans for condemning this e-mail," says Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies. "In these days of birther talk from Donald Trump, et al., it is refreshing to see Republican leaders taking a strong stand against unacceptable behavior."