KATHLEEN RONAYNE, Associated Press
California’s recall ballot is finally set, but the Republican party is still determining its best strategy for winning the governor’s office in one of the nation’s most Democratic states.
With less than a month until ballots start showing up in voters’ mailboxes for the Sept. 14 election, the GOP has no clear favorite and must decide whether to unite behind one candidate in the bid to replace Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom. If the party does, it carries the risk of alienating supporters of the hopefuls who don’t get the nod and depressing turnout.
Meanwhile, Newson has a giant fundraising edge. He has collected more than $31 million since March from donors contributing $1,000 or more while the two main pro-recall committees combined for about $5 million since December. There also is the stark reality that Democrats hold nearly 2-to-1 registration edge over Republicans, who haven’t won a statewide election in 15 years and are banking on frustration with Newsom’s handling of the pandemic to attract voters outside the GOP.
Dave Gilliard, a consultant for the main pro-recall group Rescue California, acknowledged it’s difficult to attract major donors when the party is on such a long losing streak.
“They feel that it’s a hopeless situation out here, and it’s not a good investment because of that,” Gilliard said.
Against that backdrop, the California Republican Party’s executive committee meets this weekend to decide whether to allow a process that could result in the party uniting behind one candidate and funneling its resources to that hopeful.
Party chair Jessica Millan Patterson had previously said the party should get behind one candidate, but a spokeswoman didn’t immediately comment Thursday on whether that’s still her position. One of her allies, U.S. House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, wants the party to unite but is largely staying out of the process, according to an aide who was not authorized to discuss his thinking publicly.
Anne Dunsmore, the Rescue California campaign manager, said that would be a mistake. She believes the best way to win the recall is to allow multiple candidates to motivate different swaths of voters to vote to remove Newsom. Plus, the party could make the wrong bet.
“If they endorse, then it winds up being somebody who comes in fourth or fifth, it’s not going to help them. It’s going to look dumb,” Dunsmore said.
If the state GOP’s executive committee supports an endorsement, all party delegates would vote in August.
Businessman John Cox planned to hold a news conference Friday outside the state party headquarters in Sacramento, calling the endorsement process rigged in favor of Kevin Faulconer, the former San Diego mayor who is seen as having broader appeal than his rivals but isn’t favored by some activists. If approved Saturday, the endorsement process would allow someone to win with support for 50% of delegates rather than the usual 60%.
“Trickery. Political scheme. Moving the goalposts. The insiders at California Republican Party are now no better than the Democrats,” Cox said in a statement.
The recall is on the ballot because those upset with Newsom collected more than 1.7 million signatures. Voters will have two questions: Should Newsom be recalled? And who should replace him? If the first question fails to get a majority, the second question is moot.
There are 46 candidates on the ballot. Top Republicans include former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, nationally syndicated talk radio host Larry Elder, businessman John Cox, Assemblyman Kevin Kiley and former Congressman Doug Ose. Former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner has wide name recognition but is currently in Australia shooting a reality show, though she has vowed to spend the last month of the campaign on a bus tour of the state.
No Democrat with any political standing entered the race, giving Newsom a boost that the only California governor to be recalled didn’t have. Voters in 2003 ousted Democrat Gray Davis, who faced an intraparty challenge from Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante.
Davis was replaced by Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose global celebrity was at its peak. No Republican running this year has close to his name recognition, though Jenner has said she believes she’s better known than Newsom.
With no one emerging as a front-runner, national Republicans have largely stayed on the sidelines after the Republican National Committee gave $250,000, mostly to the state party, last winter. A fundraising committee launched in March by the Republican Governors Association and billed as the “primary Republican fundraising and political entity” supporting the recall brought in $66,000 that month and hasn’t recorded any major contributions since.
Joanna Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for the RGA, said the committee is “closely watching what’s happening on the ground as the recall enters a new phase” but didn’t answer questions about whether it still plans to be involved.
U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, who is one of the richest members of Congress and bankrolled the 2003 recall effort, is the only member of the state’s congressional delegation who has endorsed. He’s supporting Faulconer.
McCarthy has not publicly directed donor support toward the recall effort.
Attracting national support could be a double-edged sword for California Republicans, who need the money but don’t want to play into Newsom’s efforts to nationalize the race.
Democrats, meanwhile, are focused on making sure their voters are aware of the election and participate. California is mailing every voter a ballot, just as the state did during the 2020 election because of pandemic concerns.
Previously, many counties had already moved toward all-mail ballots.
Newsom has been traveling the state for weeks highlighting new state spending aimed at putting money in peoples’ pockets and otherwise using the power of incumbency to generate attention. But the resurgence of the coronavirus poses a risk. Newsom’s broad shutdown orders last year fueled the anger that helped put the recall on the ballot.
If Newsom starts to feel at risk as the election nears, he benefits by pointing to the large field of candidates and reminding voters that an unknown with no governing experience could win, said Jack Pitney, a professor of political science at Claremont McKenna College who has long studied Republican politics.
“If it starts to get a little dicey toward Election Day, Newsom, in addition to making the Trump argument, can say, ‘Look at the wacko who might become governor if I’m recalled,’” he said.