Republican Meg Whitman spent nearly $180 million trying to become governor of California. Picking over the wreckage of her 13-point loss to Jerry Brown, the former eBay chief executive compared the experience to a car careening into a wall.
The last time, Republican Neel Kashkari billed his campaign as a “transformational moment” for the California GOP, even spending a week posing as a homeless man in Fresno. His kamikaze effort ended in a 20-point defeat to Brown.
California Republicans were shut out of last year’s U.S. Senate runoff between Democrats Kamala Harris and Loretta Sanchez, and they haven’t won a statewide race for any office since 2006.
They had held up San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer as their best chance to break the curse and win a top-of-the-ticket contest, arguing that while he lacked the silver screen charisma of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the fiscally conservative and socially moderate leader of the state’s second-largest city had already proven he could win elections in deeply Democratic territory.
But with Faulconer spurning their recruitment efforts, the GOP is now looking further down its thin bench at three Southern Californians who have lined up to run in next year’s contest. Assemblyman Travis Allen, venture capitalist John Cox and former Assemblyman David Hadley each see the next governor when they look in the mirror, betting against the odds things will be different this time.
Marty Wilson, a veteran GOP strategist in Sacramento, chuckled when asked why anyone in the Republican Party would submit themselves to what will likely amount to an exercise in futility.
“That’s an existential question,” said Wilson, who advised former Republican governors, including Schwarzenegger. “I suggest you talk to a priest or rabbi, because that’s beyond my pay grade.”
From the Republican perspective, if you could just get to November, you’ve got a prayer. But it isn’t much more than that.
Brian Brokaw, Democratic consultant in Sacramento
Still, Wilson said if he could wave a proverbial magic wand, creating a pile of cash for the ideal Republican, he believes there’s an opportunity to capitalize on issues facing the state for a fiscally prudent candidate, somebody who could argue that “we can’t solve the state’s problems by raising more taxes,” but who isn’t particularly hardline on social issues.
The GOP candidates themselves offer plenty of reasons why they will break through: Jerry Brown isn’t running. Democrats are in danger of going so far left that voters will rebel. Democrats, they say, have proven themselves unable to solve intractable problems such as high poverty, soaring housing costs and poorly performing schools. And so many Democrats are running that Republicans argue they have a sufficient chance of escaping the June 2018 primary, in which the top two vote-getters regardless of party advance.
Among Democrats, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom leads the race in fundraising and has maintained an advantage in every public poll. Others include state Treasurer John Chiang, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and former state schools chief Delaine Eastin. Republicans must avoid splitting up their smaller share of the vote and allowing two of the Democrats to make the runoff.
“From the Republican perspective, if you could just get to November, you’ve got a prayer,” said Brian Brokaw, a Democratic consultant in Sacramento. “But it isn’t much more than that.”
A key for each of the little-known GOP challengers is to raise enough money to pay for at least six weeks of TV ads ahead of the June primary. But they will have to overcome what has long been their biggest anchor in California: the Republican Party label.
They also will be made to answer to every position, statement and tweet issued by President Donald Trump, who lost California by more than 4 million votes. GOP analysts contend they’ll be able to survive the potential Trump-fueled setbacks because Democrats are being pushed further to the left than statewide voters are comfortable with.
Progressives are wearing out their welcome.
Shawn Steel, Republican National Committeeman from Orange County
“Progressives are wearing out their welcome,” said Shawn Steel, a Republican National Committeeman from Orange County.
“I think every Republican prays that it’s Newsom,” Steel said, referring to the leading Democrat as an “oddball” and a “pro-big government extremist.” “I don’t think he’d sell as well.”
Steel pointed to Brown and Democrats using their supermajority status to muscle though a 10-year, $52 billion increase in gas taxes and vehicle fees to pay for road repairs and transit projects.
“Unlike any other taxes, that pisses off motorists,” Steel said. “That hits the poor and the middle class right between the eyes because they have to buy gas.”
Allen, a conservative lawmaker and financial planner from Huntington Beach, has made repeal of the “gas tax” the centerpiece of his gubernatorial campaign.
“There is a silent supermajority in California that has been marginalized and feels entirely unrepresented by Jerry Brown and the California Democrats,” Allen, 43, said in a recent interview.
He said the tax “has galvanized ordinary Californians up and down the state and given them a new hope that they can once again take control of the state and have their voices heard in Sacramento.”
Allen voted for Trump, after initially supporting Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and then Ted Cruz of Texas, and believes the early months of his presidency have lifted the spirits of the country.
“There is a new sense of optimism that’s attributable to the change in presidency. (Trump’s) message for making the U.S. the strongest nation in the world was extremely compelling,” Allen said, adding, “California is the largest state in the nation, and having friendly relations with the White House is a very good thing for the citizens.”
Hadley, a 52-year-old self-described “servant leader” viewed as a moderate during his two years in the Legislature, didn’t support Trump and voted for libertarian Gary Johnson.
But the Manhattan Beach resident who started an investment banking firm said he won’t allow Democrats to use Trump as a distraction from their poor record of addressing festering problems with poverty, schools, high taxes and public services more generally while controlling the Legislature for much of the past 50 years.
“They don’t want to talk about those things,” Hadley said, predicting, “this is going to be one long exercise in polarization. But I am not going to climb down the rabbit hole of chasing every stray media outrage that comes down the pike.”
Billing himself as the only Republican who can “unite the center right,” and win in November, Hadley noted that the GOP will be aided by not having to face Brown for the first time in eight years, offering slight praise for Brown’s relative fiscal restraint and growing budget reserves for rainy days.
“California has looked more Democratic than it is in part because Gov. Brown is a better Democratic governor than the Democratic party deserves,” he said. “He’s been a historic figure with a 50-year career; (and) is very much his own brand. He’s more independent intellectually.”
The next crop of California Democrats, in contrast, is “a generation of socialists,” Hadley argues, pointing to the Senate advancing a universal health care bill to virtually abolish the private market.
“This is not moderate Democrats versus cranky, out-of-touch Republicans,” he said. Rising Democrats “have a far more radical and far more leftist view of what the state should be doing.”
Cox, an investor and attorney who relocated to Rancho Santa Fe from Illinois, dismissed his opponents as standard politicians who are running because they’ve grown tired of “beating their heads against the wall” in the Democratic-run Legislature. Cox seeded his campaign with $3 million of his own money and raised just over $200,000 more.
“I joked with my guys today that maybe every assemblyman will announce for governor,” said Cox, 61, who briefly flirted with a quixotic presidential run in 2008, earning distinction from the Weekly Standard as the “sane fringe candidate.”
Cox thinks of himself as “a businessman governor who knows how to meet a budget.” He criticized other blue states facing budget woes and worries California is headed there again, soon. “I’m business-, taxpayer- and people-friendly – as opposed to special interest-friendly.”
He’s staking his run on a recurring proposed ballot measure to create what he calls a Neighborhood Legislature, generating scores of elected representatives to advise lawmakers. While Cox has offered mix views on Trump’s policies, he portrays the president as a non-factor for voters looking for a new direction here.
“We have had eight years of Jerry Brown acting as a check on the Legislature,” Cox said. “Mr. Brown has also failed to address the issues, making them worse. Californians are looking for answers that involve private-sector solutions. And I strongly doubt the four Democrats in this race will change that direction.”
“I am not doing this for ego. I am not doing this for a job,” he added. “I am doing this because this state has to change its direction or we will end up like New Jersey, Illinois and Connecticut.”
With emerging from the primary as their chief concern, the scrambled field could make it difficult for any of the three Republicans to occupy the center, said Jason Roe, a GOP consultant.
Roe expects Chiang and Villaraigosa to fight for middle-of-the-road voters, leaving the Republicans in a battle for the right. Concluded Roe: “That will make it harder.”