The California GOP is at risk of something unprecedented this year: With two serious candidates for governor competing for a shrinking share of the electorate, there may be no Republican standard-bearer on the ballot in November.
The distinct possibility has unnerved party officials and political consultants who worry that it could have severe consequences for down-ballot candidates in a year when Republicans are fighting to retain control of Congress and claw back from super-minority status in the Legislature.
"The first thing that people see when they open their ballot is the top-of-the-ticket race, and we don't want Republicans to be discouraged," said Dave Gilliard, who represents candidates in several House districts that national Democrats have targeted as prime pickup opportunities because voters chose Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.
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Neither gubernatorial hopeful – businessman John Cox and Assemblyman Travis Allen – is backing down. As they compete for an endorsement at the state party convention next month, both candidates maintain that they alone can prevail in the nonpartisan June primary, advancing to the top-two runoff.
Their jabs have only intensified in recent weeks. Allen has questioned Cox's record as a real estate investor and characterized him as a "slumlord," while Cox has raised doubts about Allen's conservative credentials because of prior political donations to Democrats.
Though far more Democrats are running for governor this year, Republicans could be in trouble if Cox and Allen fairly evenly split the much smaller pool of conservative voters in liberal California. Already, wealthy charter school proponents have dropped $8.5 million into an independent committee to boost former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa into the general election against frontrunner Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Cox, who held a slim lead over Villaraigosa for second place in a Public Policy Institute of California poll last week, is trying to consolidate support by positioning himself as the only Republican with a shot at making it to the November runoff.
Recent public opinion polls have consistently placed Cox ahead of Allen, while Allen's last financial filing showed his campaign in debt at the end of 2017. After putting $2 million of his own fortune into his campaign last summer, Cox has far greater resources at his disposal, though the pro-charter money could force him to pony up even more.
His supporters also tout an internal poll Cox conducted, which shows that barely more half of likely GOP voters in California would turn out in November if there is no Republican gubernatorial candidate on the ballot. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich cited the figures as a reason to back Cox in a column on Fox News' website earlier this month.
"Everybody is looking at Travis as playing the spoiler role now," Cox campaign strategist Wayne Johnson said. "I mean, everybody is except Travis."
That's not entirely the case. Allen has his own solid base of support, tied to his vociferous opposition of illegal immigration. He registered at 10 percent in the PPIC poll to Cox's 15 percent, within the margin of error.
And not everyone is convinced of the dire repercussions if neither one advances from the primary. Republican strategist Matt Rexroad, who is working with candidates in four swing legislative districts, said he thinks voters' outlook on what is happening in Washington will have a much bigger impact on the results in November. Beth Miller, another GOP consultant, said conservative enthusiasm for the right initiative, like a proposal currently gathering signatures to repeal the latest gas tax increase, could buoy Republicans' prospects.
But depressed turnout is a major concern for those working to maintain Republican control of Congress. Gilliard said any money going to help Allen is a "waste" and any vote Allen gets will simply make it harder for Cox to break through the crowded field.
"I am hopeful that Republican voters will see that and unite behind the candidate that actually has a chance," Gilliard said.
California Republican Party leaders also recognize the danger of two Democrats facing off for governor in November, though they stress they are not intervening in the race.
"We absolutely need a Republican to get through the primary," executive director Cynthia Bryant said in a statement. "We have two great candidates who are consistently in the top of the polls, and it is our strong hope that at least one advances to the general."
Allen, for his part, sounds positively gleeful about all the hand-wringing.
He said it shows the desperation of Cox – whom Allen never passes up an opportunity to point out has lost every public office he's ever run for – as Allen racks up endorsements from more Republican activists and county parties than his rival.
"It's clear that Cox's only support is the support he's purchased and the money he's spent," Allen said. "If money decided elections, then Meg Whitman would have been governor in 2010."