Before the eight Republicans jockeying to claim an open Assembly seat began their debate on Monday night, the party faithful in attendance were treated to some light political metaphor.
Images of a lion and buffalo flashed across a screen against pulsing drum and flute music, telling a parable of buffalo banding together to repel an invading predator. But the next time the lion approached, the text warned, the buffalo scattered and were easily devoured one by one. Quotes about unity and solidarity followed. Then, a note of caution.
In probably “the most Republican Assembly district in California,” Placer County Republican Party central committee chair Dennis Revell told the audience, “if we are to continue, at a minimum, to block the Democratic supermajority in the Assembly, it is critical that two out of these eight Republicans move on to the November election.”
A race in a reliably Republican district, anchored in Placer County, would seem to pose little risk for the GOP. But, as wary campaign managers would attest, a safe open seat in the top-two primary era can be a dangerous thing.
With Assemblywoman Beth Gaines, R-El Dorado Hills, forced out by term limits and leaving no obvious heir, a crowded field of Republican contenders has formed. Not one stands as a clear frontrunner, with money and endorsements scattered throughout. Just two Democrats and one nonpartisan candidate filed for the seat.
That diffuse slate has Republicans worried that a split vote will allow one or even two Democrats to claim the most votes and advance to the November election. The two candidates who garner the highest pluralities in the June primary will advance regardless of party.
“We could see, for the first time, a Democrat elected in a solidly Republican district,” said Dave Gilliard, a consultant for Republican candidate Kevin Kiley. “When it’s a wide-open field like this, anything can happen.”
Victory – which in this case means advancing to the general election, given Republican voters’ robust registration edge – could be a matter of capturing as little as 15 or 20 percent of the vote.
“You can be half of Trump and still make it,” said campaign consultant Matt Rexroad, who is working for Republican candidate Cristi Nelson. The presumptive Republican nominee won multiple early primaries without winning a majority of voters, benefiting from a fractured field.
The Democratic contenders are paying attention, seeing a glimmer of possibility in a district where they face a nearly 20-point voter registration deficit.
“It’s going to be nearly impossible for them not to split the vote in a way that at least one Democrat doesn’t make it through to the general election,” said Democratic candidate Brian Caples.
The situation raises the stakes for Republicans to distinguish themselves from rivals who generally share their ideology. For the most part, the Republican contenders tout similar platforms of opposing taxes and easing a business climate they say is stifled by excessive regulation. They all opposed boosting the state minimum wage to $15 an hour.
There are some distinctions. Kiley, Nelson and Auburn Chamber of Commerce CEO Kevin Hanley have homed in on public safety, warning that a policy shifting prison inmates to jails and voter-approved Proposition 47, which downgrades some felonies to misdemeanors, are imperiling communities. Kiley – a former deputy attorney general for the California Department of Justice – has emphasized the issue by equipping his website with a “Prop 47 simulator,” letting voters pretend to be a police officer navigating downgraded criminal penalties.
Andy Pugno, who fought on the losing side of a defining cultural battle as an author of the same-sex-marriage-prohibiting Proposition 8, has tried a social values appeal. He sent out mailers warning “our values are under attack” and referencing laws allowing transgender people to use bathrooms of their choosing.
Getting to the runoff could hinge not just on the district’s 57,000 voters without a party preference but on which Republican most adeptly poaches some of the 73,000 or so Democratic voters, according to California Target Book editor Tony Quinn.
“Voters are getting used to the top two, and so the candidates are now making cross-party appeals,” Quinn said. “You’ve got all these Republicans running and probably at least one of them is smart enough to make appeals to the Democratic voters.”
Bill Halldin, the founder of a public relations firm, has helped his cause on that front by winning the endorsement of the California Teachers Association, a longstanding Democratic ally, and touting his ability to work with others. But that has also emerged as a liability, exposing him to repeated attacks during Monday’s debate from rivals who questioned his conservative credentials.
“Why aren’t you running as a Democrat in this race?” Nelson asked him.
Voters will get no help from the institutional party. The California Republican Party cannot endorse a candidate without the blessing of county Republican parties. None of the three county parties within the 6th Assembly District has chosen a candidate.
“I wouldn’t expect that we will, because most of the candidates enjoy some level of support within the central committee membership,” Revell said.
The race has drawn some prominent endorsements. Former Gov. Pete Wilson has backed Kiley, praising his law enforcement experience and warning of the risks if voters do not coalesce behind a favorite.
“The vote for the Republicans may be so scattered that neither finish in the top two. That may be a serious miscalculation,” Wilson said. “As we have just seen at the presidential level, it’s difficult to prevent that from happening. You can have people with the best intentions in the world and not really thinking of the consequences.”
But other endorsements are sprinkled throughout the field, undercutting any one candidate’s attempt to accept the mantle of establishment favorite.
Nelson has drawn the blessing of Gaines, whose name is broadly recognized in an area represented for years by Gaines and her husband, Sen. Ted Gaines, R-Rocklin. Former Rep. Doug Ose, Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Oroville, and state Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, have backed Halldin. Hanley has the support of Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, a paragon of farther-right conservatism.
As of early May, two of the Republican candidates showed no money in their campaign accounts. Among the six others, Kiley, Halldin and Nelson led the way with six-figure donation totals.
Some of the candidates have loaned themselves money. Pugno has loaned his campaign about $200,000 and has given himself another $100,000. Nelson has loaned herself about $100,000; Hanley has loaned his campaign $140,000.
The race has also attracted the attention of outside groups. A committee controlled by Republican benefactor Charles T. Munger Jr. has spent more than $60,000 on Halldin’s behalf. A group backed largely by real estate interests has spent $20,000 against Pugno, who antagonized many Republicans with an ill-fated 2012 challenge to Gaines, and just under $40,000 on behalf of Halldin.
Republicans still hold a clear money advantage over the Democrats eying an opening, neither of whom registered any cash. Quinn pointed to the money trail in explaining why he’s discounting the more ominous predictions and anticipating a two-Republican runoff.
“You have several Republicans here that have raised and spent a lot of money,” Quinn said. “I think if you had one Democrat who could put out a few mailers to loyal Democrats, maybe that one would slip in.”
For Carole Vaillancourt, a 76-year-old retired registered nurse and Republican who lives in Roseville, the decision will come down to whichever candidate pledges to keep taxes low and will “be good for the district.”
And if they all promise that?
“I’ll have to use my gut,” Vaillancourt said. “They’re all good people.”