If Donald Trump does not secure the Republican nomination for president in the weeks ahead, the fate of the contest may eventually rest on California’s primary June 7. And if that scenario unfolds, Trump could have a very tough time here.
One big reason? Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The parallels between Trump and Schwarzenegger are many, and they are not similarities likely to help the billionaire New York businessman among California Republicans.
Schwarzenegger was first elected governor in the 2003 recall election that ousted Democrat Gray Davis. The former body builder and action-hero actor rode into office as a macho, tough-talking celebrity with an outsider’s message aimed at voters angry about corruption and incompetence in Sacramento. Waving a broom at many of his rallies, Schwarzenegger promised to “sweep the special interests” out of the Capitol and “blow up the boxes” of a bureaucracy-laden state government organization chart. He bashed the media and was known universally by his first name.
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All of that worked for Schwarzenegger, so why is not likely to work for Trump?
There are many reasons. One is that Schwarzenegger ran in a special election in which all the candidates (and there were more than 130) appeared on a single ballot, without regard to political party. He won the votes of many Republicans, but he also benefited from the support of independents and disgruntled or star-struck Democrats.
California’s presidential primary, though, will be open to registered Republicans only. The 172 delegates awarded here – 14 percent of the total needed to win the nomination – will be distributed based on the statewide vote and the tally in each of the state’s 53 congressional districts.
Given the decades-long decline in the party’s registration, the Republicans who remain are the most committed conservatives. And those voters have bad memories of the Schwarzenegger years. Although Schwarzenegger was far more serious about policy than Trump, he also had an ideology that spanned the political spectrum.
Especially after winning re-election in 2006, Schwarzenegger worked closely with the Democrats who controlled the Legislature. He signed the state’s landmark bill to fight climate change and made it his signature issue. He raised taxes and pushed, unsuccessfully, for a universal health care plan similar to what is now known as Obamacare.
Schwarzenegger also advocated political reform, including the open primary system that lets voters pick from among all candidates without regard to party registration – a rule that does not apply to the Republican presidential primary.
By the time he left office, Schwarzenegger’s job approval rating was the worst of any governor in state history, and Republicans were just as unhappy with him as Democrats.
Schwarzenegger has endorsed Ohio Gov. John Kasich, but if Trump stumbles, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz might be well positioned to topple him here. Cruz has the support of the conservative California Republican Assembly, Congressman Tom McClintock (who was Schwarzenegger’s main conservative rival in 2003) and many grass-roots Republican activists. Cruz was narrowly ahead of Trump in the last Field Poll, taken in December.
A lot can happen between now and June 7. But it’s a mistake to assume that California is a state that would put Trump over the top. It might do just the opposite.
Daniel Weintraub, editor of the California Health Report, is the author of “Party of One,” a book on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s election and his early years as governor.