SAN DIEGO – California Republicans have been called an endangered species in this “state of resistance” to the Trump administration, but they insist that their party will beat the odds in 2018 and take back the governor’s seat.
The conservative movement against California’s controversial “sanctuary state” law, a ballot measure to repeal Governor Jerry Brown’s gas tax, and deepening concerns about rising housing costs and homelessness are fueling Republican hopes for a longshot upset.
The California Republicans who gathered here this weekend for their state party convention say that’s because the Democratic Party – which controls every statewide seat and both houses of the state legislature – has too often tested the patience of taxpayers. With voters preparing to start mail balloting Monday for the June 5 primary, Republicans are casting solidly-Democratic California -- the world’s sixth largest economy and home to Silicon Valley -- as a broken state hobbled with rising crime and taxes that are sending businesses and residents fleeing.
And they’re attacking the two Democratic gubernatorial frontrunners, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, as part of the problem.
“People look around and they ask why we have the highest level of poverty in the United States?’’ said Assemblyman Travis Allen, a conservative populist from Huntington Beach who has focused his run for governor on the issue of illegal immigration. “Why do we have this exploding homeless population? And what have the California Democrats done to fix it?’’
Wealthy GOP businessman John Cox of Rancho Santa Fe -- who’s now in second place behind Democrat Gavin Newsom in the governor’s race in California, where the primary doesn’t take party into account -- helped finance an effort to put before voters a ballot measure to repeal the state’s new gas tax, which is overwhelmingly unpopular with Republicans.
“I think the people of this state want better management and they want a businessperson. They’ve got one in the White House,’’ he said in an interview. “The politicians have just run this state into the ground.”
Cox ticks off a list of issues that he says will drive GOP voters to turn out at the polls: “This state is the most unaffordable state in the country, the highest taxes, the most people in poverty. It’s got the worst education system. We were just voted the worst business climate in the country. Regulations are a joke. Small business formation is at an all time low. Businesses are moving out left and right.”
“I don’t know at all how any politician can claim they have managed this state well -- and I think the people know it,’’ he said.
Many Republicans, like Jim Brulte, the state party chair, resist the notion of Democratic leaders like Nancy Pelosi, who counter that the president’s unpopularity and current troubles – including the Stormy Daniels drama and Robert Mueller’s probe – will have a corrosive effect on GOP turnout in California that will help Democrats win back the House as well.
“You want to know why every word out of the Democrats’ mouth is Donald Trump?” Brulte said. “Because they don’t want the voters of this state focusing on what’s happening here. They owned the state, they broke the state – and Republicans, we’re the fix.”
Many Republicans this weekend at their San Diego convention, where “Make America Great Again” hats and “Repeal the Gas Tax” signs were snapped up, reserved their most intense ire for the SB54, the “California Values Act’’ -- also known as the “sanctuary state” bill, which supporters say is aimed at protecting the rights of undocumented immigrants. Costa Mesa this week became the latest municipality in California to opt out of the bill, joining Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, Simi Valley and Orange County among a crowd in what’s been called growing “revolution” against the measure.
Harmeet Dhillon, a member of the Republican National Committee and a civil rights attorney, told a packed crowd of Republicans Saturday that with the bill, California Democrats are attempting to unconstitutionally override federal jurisdiction and “force law enforcement into a more dangerous position that makes all of us a little less safe.”
“Californians are fed up,’’ said Dhillon, a former vice-chair of the state GOP. “We’re beginning to see a backlash with sanctuary city issues,’’ said Dhillon. “There’s a secret Trump support out there. Democrats feel very smug when they look at the polls, but people say one thing to the pollsters and another to other voters.”
But California State Senator Kevin de Leon, the author of SB54 -- and a regular target of GOP candidates -- told POLITICO the Republican playbook aims to mislead voters and pump up anti-immigrant sentiment this weekend is merely a desperate attempt to energize a weakening voter base.
“Like Trump, these fake patriots lie about what the bill does,’’ he said. “The fact is, SB 54 expressly exempts dangerous and violent criminals and promotes public safety by having local law enforcement focused on keeping communities safe, not enforcing federal immigration laws. By wide margins Californians see through Trump’s lies and reject his race based immigration policies.”
De Leon said, “Pro-Trump Republicans are out of step with California values. Try as hard as they might they cannot turn back the clock to 1994,’’ adding: “We simply refuse to go back.”
But Lanhee Chen, a former advisor to U.S. Senator Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign, says Republicans hoping for some wins this year in an overwhelmingly Democratic state may get traction -- by using the bill to point to “a number of examples of gross mismanagement and public policy in California,’’ some of them related to immigration.
Along with fears generated by some high profile crimes like the Kate Steinle murder, there has also been a sense “that urban blight in California has gotten really bad,’’ with homeless encampments mushrooming in Democratic cities like San Francisco and Oakland. “Those law-and-order issues resonate with voters in the Republican party -- and independent voters as well,’’ Chen said.
That’s why party activists may be banking hopes on their chances of beating one of the Democratic “flawed candidates”-- such as Newsom or Villaraigosa, who have both been the focus of independent expenditures efforts hammering away way at past sexual transgressions of both men. Chan says some Republicans believe that may create “an opportunity for a Republican to sneak in here.”
But Steve Frank, a longtime party activist and publisher of California News & Views -- a conservative website -- cautions that if Republicans really want to take back the governor’s seat in California, they need to follow the example of the man in the White House, who got there despite the predictions of pundits.
“Trump had a message -- and he had solutions,’’ said Frank, who hasn’t endorsed either Cox or Allen. Neither of the Republican candidates has gained traction, he said. “They have headlines, but no solutions.”