Dan Morain

Here’s how California’s House Republicans think they can survive in 2018

Now that most of California’s House Republicans have voted for a tax overhaul that will raise taxes for many of their constituents, you have to wonder what more good cheer they’ll bring us in the new year.

I’m thinking roads and other infrastructure.


A measure hurtling toward the November 2018 ballot would repeal the 12-cent per gallon gasoline tax increase approved this past legislative session to pay for road repairs, bridge maintenance and some public transit. Granted, no one wants to pay more for gasoline. But potholes don’t fill themselves.

That’s not stopping House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, and most of California’s Republican congressional delegation from backing that repeal – with a notable exception, Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock.

McCarthy, a guy who knows politics, dumped $100,000 into the initiative to repeal the gas tax. Rep. Mimi Walters, an Orange County Republican, and Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Corona, chipped in $50,000 each, recent campaign finance reports show.

“This is politics at its worst,” California Transportation Secretary Brian Kelly told me. “They’re trying to make sure Republicans get to the polls in California. It’s not much other than that, in a year that looks pretty shaky for them.”

California Republicans will be facing a bleak reality in 2018. They’re known by the company they keep. A recent poll by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies shows 66 percent of us disapprove of the Republican Party’s leader, President Donald Trump, and 57 percent strongly disapprove. A mere 30 percent of California voters approve of Trump’s performance.

Any Republican politician who thinks he or she has a future in the Golden State ought to be especially alarmed by this finding: 77 percent of people between ages 18 and 39 disapprove of Trump. An entire generation in the nation’s largest state has turned against the GOP’s standard bearer, roughly the reverse of numbers recorded at the end of Barack Obama’s first year in office.

“I’ve never seen the depth of disapproval so strongly held,” said pollster Mark DiCamillo, who has been polling Californians since 1978.

DiCamillo’s latest polling did give some faint hope to Republicans, at least in the short term. The proposed initiative to repeal the gasoline tax hike led with 52 percent of likely voters. That’s narrow, and a campaign against the measure could derail it. But 81 percent of Republicans support repeal. Therein lies an opportunity for McCarthy and Republican consultants to gin up turnout among GOP voters in a year when they could have few other reasons to show up to the polls.

Politics aside, there’s a matter of policy. Trump may finally be getting around to pushing for the $1 trillion package to improve roads, rail, airports and other public works he promised during the 2016 campaign. Whether California would get a piece of that money is not a certainty. As the tax overhaul showed, Trump and congressional Republicans are willing to punish blue states.

If California were to get money from the feds, we’d surely be expected to put up a match. The gas tax increase, expected to generate $5.2 billion a year, probably would count as California’s share. That money would vanish if the campaign to repeal the initiative were to succeed.

In September, a coalition that includes building trade unions, major road builders, engineering firms and Los Angeles, Orange County and Bay Area business groups – many of them Republican donors – sent letters urging California’s congressional Republicans to stand down and not push to repeal the gas tax hike, embodied in Senate Bill 1 signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in April.

“We appreciate that your primary goal is to protect all incumbent Republicans and increase the number of Republicans in the House as well as other elected bodies,” says one letter sent to House Republicans from California.

“However, a strategy to use an initiative to repeal SB 1 to reach your goal may be counterproductive to your objectives. Fundamentally, any attack on SB 1 amounts to an attack on improving our badly deficient transportation system, endangering our economic growth and competitiveness, and increasing unemployment.”

McCarthy pointedly pushed back: “If Democrats in Sacramento are rewarded with a gas tax bailout now, what is to stop them from looking at the industries represented in your coalition to pay for the next fiscal crisis? These are principles we should stand shoulder-to-shoulder to defend.”

McCarthy and 10 other House Republicans from California signed the letter. Denham was among the absentees. His office offered no explanation for his failure to stand “shoulder-to-shoulder” with fellow Republicans.

But if Republicans keep control of the House in 2018, the Central Valley Republican would be in line to become chairman of the committee that oversees transportation and infrastructure. Denham would be dealing with construction companies, engineering firms and unions that represent the building trades, the very same ones who will be spending millions to defeat the initiative that McCarthy is funding.

Politics aside, they understand the hard reality that decent roads come at a cost. And, evidently, so does Denham.

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