As Hillary Clinton touched off her two-day swing through California before a bank of television cameras at Stanford University on Wednesday, a group of Republican women ducked into a country club for lunch across the San Francisco Bay.
For the first time in years, California’s June primary could prove decisive in the Republican Party’s presidential nominating contest. But at the Piedmont Area Republican Women Federated – a tiny outpost of conservatism in one of the most liberal regions of a Democratic state – new-found relevance has met with angst.
For Republicans here, said the group’s president, Jean Wieler, “some of us would just rather be quiet about what we believe.”
“You put your head down, most of us,” she said. “Don’t have political conversations with friends because we think we might lose those friends.”
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Following a loss by the Republican frontrunner, Donald Trump, in Ohio last week, and the growing likelihood of a competitive primary reaching California on June 7, the three remaining GOP presidential candidates will be Wieler and Republicans like her in the spotlight. Already they are recruiting potential delegates in each district and preparing for highly targeted campaigns.
“There are three campaigns that are going to be completely engaged in 53 little primaries,” said Wayne Johnson, a Republican political consultant in Sacramento.
Because of the way California Republicans award nearly all of their 172 delegates – three delegates each to the winner of each congressional district – the relatively small number of Republican voters living in heavily Democratic districts such as Piedmont’s will hold a disproportionate influence on the result.
Some of us would just rather be quiet about what we believe.
Jean Wieler, president of the Piedmont Area Republican Women Federated
A statewide California media buy could cost millions, but reaching voters in such areas could be a bargain.
“Having winner-take-all by congressional district allows candidates who don’t necessarily have the resources to compete statewide to really be able to go into a particular media market and saturate it with advertising,” said Jim Brulte, chairman of the state Republican Party. “So, if you can’t afford the $2.5 million that it costs to do one week of TV across the state, you can go into the Central Coast and buy television, you can go down into Palm Springs and the Palm Desert and buy TV. You can go up into Merced ...”
The terrain that Trump and his competitors are traversing in California is increasingly barren ground. The Republican Party shrank by about 400,000 registered voters during the last four years, falling to less than 28 percent of the electorate. Republicans hold no statewide offices.
In a fundraising appeal on Tuesday, Brulte said the party was working to bolster registration ahead of the primary election, reporting “hundreds” of new registrations so far.
If the Republican Party’s light statewide is dim, it is nearly invisible in the 13th Congressional District. Running through the liberal strongholds of Berkeley and Oakland, fewer than 7 percent of the district’s nearly 400,000 voters are Republican.
Republicans are so scarce here that Sue Caro, a local activist and organizer, said that as recently as last week, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s campaign was having difficulty finding delegates.
“There aren’t that many well-known, rational Republicans that they know about,” she said.
There are three campaigns that are going to be completely engaged in 53 little primaries.
Wayne Johnson, a Republican political consultant in Sacramento
Caro, who served as a delegate for Mitt Romney in 2012, said that for many conservatives in the East Bay, “It’s easier to navigate the social waters here if you don’t say you’re a Republican.”
Mike Schroeder, a former California Republican Party chairman who is working on the Cruz campaign in California, said the campaign will finalize its list of potential delegates by Friday. Candidates have until May 13 to submit the names to the state party.
Trump, whose victory in Arizona on Tuesday expanded his delegate lead, has recruited Ted Costa, a California veteran of conservative ballot initiatives, to vet potential delegates. He said he has been interviewing potential candidates at local Republican meetings throughout the state.
The process of delegate recruitment, laborious even in a typical presidential year, is of heightened significance amid the looming prospect of a contested convention. Costa said he is seeking Trump loyalists, people “who are going to be with him on the first ballot, the second ballot, the third ballot.”
Of the remaining candidates, Cruz is the best organized in the state, enlisting volunteers in every county and securing the endorsement of the conservative California Republican Assembly last month.
Still, he lags behind Trump in public opinion. In the first public poll of likely Republican voters in the state since January, the Public Policy Institute of California on Wednesday put support for Trump at 38 percent, with a double-digit lead over Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
If Trump continues to perform well in other states, he could amass the 1,237 delegates necessary to secure the nomination on the final day of voting, with a massive batch of delegates awarded in California.
In an effort to deny him the nomination, Cruz, a favorite of evangelicals and tea party conservatives, is expected to compete with Trump for delegates in the Central Valley and northern reaches of the state. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a more moderate Republican, could do well in coastal districts, including in the Bay Area.
“The fact of the matter is this is an unprecedented event for California,” said Robert Molnar, an adviser to former state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, who is working for Kasich in the state. “So the idea that anybody has this great idea and plan of how it’s going to turn out, they’re just lying to you.”
If the presidential primary remains undecided when it reaches California, it will be the first time the state’s June election has been decisive in a presidential primary since California went for George McGovern as the Democratic nominee in 1972.
If you’re a Democrat in Texas, you keep your mouth shut, and if you’re a Republican here, you keep your mouth shut.
Albert Kugler, a Republican from San Leandro
But as the Republican candidates’ advisers in California begin analyzing delegate math and the possibility of rare appeals to voters on state-specific issues, it is not clear how warmly voters will receive their efforts.
“We’ve been kind of insulated from all the campaign politics, the crap on the television in California, because we haven’t mattered,” said Albert Kugler, a Republican living in San Leandro. “We haven’t been subjected to all of that.”
Kugler, who returned to California’s 13th Congressional District after spending several years in Texas, is unenthusiastic about his choices for president and leery to talk politics in the neighborhood.
“If you’re a Democrat in Texas, you keep your mouth shut, and if you’re a Republican here, you keep your mouth shut,” Kugler said. “That’s kind of the way it is.”
On the short drive from Piedmont to the Oakland country club where the Republican women met this week, an apolitical smattering of road signs promoted the local “Easter Eggstravaganza,” and there was little to suggest an impending presidential campaign.
Before the luncheon, Wieler asked a reporter to sit the meeting out. Some members, she said, “get really upset if someone from the outside comes in.”
“You know, most of us are just fiscal conservatives who don’t believe we should be paying for everything for everybody else,” Wieler said. “And we believe in the American dream and the American work ethic. But it’s easier to keep quiet.”
13th Congressional District
The map shows where the district’s few Republican voters are concentrated. Zoom in and click on a precinct for more information.
Source: Statewide Database