California Republicans Grapple With Turnout Fears

Party strategists worry their voters won’t show up if only Democrats make the runoffs for Senate and governor.

Steve Bannon, a former White House adviser to President Trump, speaks at the California Republican Convention in Anaheim on Friday, Oct. 20, 2017.
AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu
Kimberly Railey and Zach C. Cohen
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Kimberly Railey and Zach C. Cohen
March 8, 2018, 8 p.m.

California Republicans failed to field a serious candidate for governor or Senate ahead of the Friday filing deadline and are now wrestling with a related issue: possible turnout trouble in their vulnerable House districts.

With the potential for the state’s quirky primary system to shut them out of statewide races, some Republicans in the state fear that fewer of their voters will show up on Election Day, when Democrats are eyeing a staggering 10 House seats in California. Losing half that sum would bury the number of Republican-held seats in the 53-member House delegation into the single digits.

The problem, GOP strategists said, is even more pronounced at a time when Democratic enthusiasm is already high and President Trump’s approval rating continues to slide.

“There is deep concern,” said California Republican consultant Jason Roe. “But I also think for the most part everyone is resigned to the reality.”

In the Senate race, no formidable Republican is challenging Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, increasing the probability of the state’s second straight Democrat-vs.-Democrat general election. Feinstein’s top challenger is state Sen. Kevin de León.

The prospect of an all-Democrat ballot also appears likely in the governor race, where polls show Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa leading the field. A third Democrat, state Treasurer John Chiang, is in striking distance.

Adding to the uniqueness of the situation: If two Democrats emerge from both the Senate and governor primaries, it would be the first time that no Republican leads the ballot since the top-two primary went into effect in 2012.

In an interview, California Republican Party Chairman Jim Brulte said he “would still prefer” either John Cox or state Assemblyman Travis Allen end their campaigns in the hopes of consolidating Republican support, but he said neither appears interested in leaving the governor race.

He added that it was “unclear” whether either Republican had the fundraising prowess or deep pockets to fund a statewide get-out-the-vote operation in November. Cox has given his campaign $4 million so far, while Allen’s last report showed him in debt.

“A lot of Republican donors are sitting back,” Brulte said. “But any Republican candidate for any office—Assembly, Senate, Congress, school board, district attorney—who is waiting for someone else to turn voters out in their district is foolish.”

Still, there are efforts under way to try to draw more Republicans to the polls. Some in the state are hoping to force onto the ballot a repeal of the state’s new gas tax, mindful of the higher turnout it could spur. The tax, passed by the state legislature in the spring, has remained highly controversial.

The repeal campaign has already gained financial support from House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, who donated $100,000 to the cause. Other backers include Reps. Ken Calvert and Mimi Walters, a Democratic target.

The measure is about two-thirds of the way toward fulfilling its signature goal, making its placement on the ballot “very likely,” according to Dave Gilliard, the general consultant of the initiative.

“There’s no question that it will help get these voters out to the polls if they don’t have a [statewide] candidate to vote for,” said Gilliard, who is also working on several House races.

California Republicans are used to a dearth of credible contenders running atop the ticket. With Republicans no longer competing there in the presidential race, the last time they fielded well-funded challengers who came within 20 points on Election Day was in 2010, when Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina combined to spend $180 million (most of it by Whitman) on their respective losing governor and Senate campaigns.

Several House incumbents over the years have shown resilience in tough climates, such as perennial Democratic targets Reps. Jeff Denham and David Valadao, whose districts Hillary Clinton won. Some Republican strategists predict a stronger push by campaigns to build up their own infrastructure, as well as the potential for significant outside help.

The Paul Ryan-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund opened offices to boost four California incumbents, including Denham and Rep. Steve Knight, as a part of an aggressive field program. Each is equipped with one full-time staffer.

Despite those efforts, some GOP strategists worry their turnout problems may be particularly acute this cycle, with several House elections that could be decided by close margins. The retirements of Republican Reps. Darrell Issa and Ed Royce further endangered their seats, while Democratic challengers outraised Walters, Knight, and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, among others, in the fourth quarter.

Still, with an aggressive seat-target list in the double digits for California, GOP strategists are skeptical that Democrats will have enough financial resources to seriously compete in all of these districts.

“For years, it used to be the case where we would hear ‘California is so expensive,’” said California GOP strategist Matt Rexroad said. “I’m struck by now suddenly it’s affordable. I don’t think that’s accurate.”

In some districts, the glut of candidates running has spiked Democratic concerns that their candidates could be locked out of districts entirely. At the state Democratic Party convention last month, delegates failed to pick a nominee out of the large fields in the Issa and Royce seats, further muddying the fields in those races.

Issa, in a brief Capitol interview, declined to say whether California Republicans should be concerned about turnout this cycle.

“You should ask somebody who’s running for reelection,” he said, walking off.

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