Travis Allen, an assemblyman who announced his bid last week to succeed Jerry Brown as the state’s next governor, argues that he’s already a standout — of the three leading Republicans in the race, he alone proudly admits voting for the president.
“There were 4.4 million Republicans in California who voted for Trump, and they are looking for real leadership in California,” Allen told POLITICO last week as he tooled around the state’s highways on a campaign trip.
He said the reluctance of the leading GOP challengers — millionaire businessman John Cox and former Assemblyman David Hadley — to embrace Trump and his positions “may not sit very well with Republicans who are voting come June 2018.”
Yet at the same time, the deep animus toward Trump in California makes embracing him a difficult proposition for any candidate who hopes to win a general election. Together, it’s presenting a thorny situation for GOP candidates as the state’s marquee 2018 race ramps up.
In an overwhelmingly blue state — where Democrats hold a 19-point voter registration edge over Republicans — leading Democratic contenders like Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, state Treasurer John Chiang and former state Superintendent of Schools Delaine Eastin are busy collecting donors’ checks and are widely covered by major media outlets.
By contrast, the GOP candidates in California are relative unknowns who, on top of a party registration gap, face the hurdles of the state’s “top two” primary system — which calls for the top two vote-getters of either party to advance to the general election. In a crowded gubernatorial field, that drastically decreases their chances of making it to the general election.
And this year, the Republican candidates have the added “Trump factor” to contend with.
Thanks to Trump — whose approval rating in California is just 27 percent and who lost the popular vote by 4 million votes here — getting to the governorship is “almost an insurmountable mountain for Republicans to climb,’’ said USC political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe.
The delicate formula for victory involves backing Trump enough to please the party’s base — volunteers and donors who are critical to success — while not alienating the independents, 1 in 4 state voters who could make the winning difference in the general election.
Jim Lacy, a Trump delegate to the Republican National Convention and author of “Taxifornia: Liberals’ Laboratory to Bankrupt California,” frankly acknowledges that “if a Republican candidate went out and fully embraced Trump, and shouted through the state that they’re Trump’s candidate for governor,” it would almost certainly end their chances to make it to the state’s general election.
But he says there’s a way to thread the needle — though to have any chance of victory, a California Republican must have the backing of the loyal GOP grass-roots activists and donors who can make or break a campaign here.
“Even though many of them didn’t like Trump, they voted for him because they are tried-and-true Republicans,’’ Lacy said. Allen alone “can very proudly say he voted for the GOP candidate — and that these other folks who say they are Republican haven’t done so.”
Hadley — a moderate who has in the past won the backing of millionaire donor Charles Munger Jr. — told the Los Angeles Times recently that he didn’t vote for Trump in the 2016 election. The former assemblyman said he hopes to appeal to voters who may be willing to cross party lines and that he will soon announce endorsements from more than 20 GOP members of the legislature.
Cox, in a past interview with POLITICO, declined to say for whom he cast his vote, though he said last week that he is glad Hillary Clinton didn’t win, because she “would have been a disaster.”
But Cox, who ran for both U.S. Senate and president in Illinois before he moved to California — and has never been elected to office — has wholly embraced the Trumpian notion that an outsider can offer fresh solutions and break up the stale government insiders’ hold on Sacramento. “I’m a businessman, not a politician,’’ he said, a line that comes directly from Trump’s playbook. “I’m running to clean out the barn.”
Yet he’s also carefully attempted to distance himself from some of the president’s more controversial moves — his tweets, for example. “Take a look at my Twitter feed,’’ he said, when asked about Trump’s critiques of the media, TV personalities and the intelligence community. “My tweets are positive … that’s the tenor of what you’ll see coming out of me. … I’m not going to comment on the president.”
All three GOP candidates accuse Democrats — who hold supermajorities in both houses of the California legislature — of overreaching, and Brown of failing to keep them in check. Despite the open hostility of many California political leaders to Trump, Allen argues Democrats and independents are not all in lockstep with the “State of Resistance” agenda on issues like sanctuary cities.
“A friendly relationship with the White House could only benefit California’’ in areas like infrastructure, jobs and federal funding, Allen said.
“It’s up to the government in California to take care of our state first and foremost,’’ he said. “And this is what has been completely lacking with the Democrat leadership in Sacramento — from Jerry Brown to [Senate President] Kevin de Leon to [Attorney General] Xavier Becerra. They have taken an antagonistic stance, regardless of the detrimental effect to the state, and it’s gotta change.”
Allen cites Brown’s recent support for an increase in the state gas tax, which he argues is unpopular and won’t solve the state’s traffic gridlock problems. He also points to sanctuary cities — a concept that polls show is not nearly as popular as Democrats suggest, he argues.
“There is a widely held misconception that the Democrats are invincible in California,’’ he said “But there is a silent supermajority that has been marginalized and forgotten by Jerry Brown and the ruling Democrats. These are the people who are screaming at their TVs every night and can’t understand why their politicians aren’t listening to them.’’
Allen said he’s already lined up party-slate mailers that will reach 14 million of those voters by the fall — an advantage he argues will give him a major advantage over his fellow Republicans in a state with eight major media markets where TV spots are among the most expensive in the country.
But even that may not be enough. On the fundraising front, Democrats have raised more than $20 million to date — and front-runner Newsom alone has banked more than $10 million. By contrast, GOP front-runner Cox, who says he’s putting $3 million of his own money in the race, last week announced he has raised $202,000 — the most to date in the Republican field.
Hoover Institution fellow Bill Whalen, who was an adviser to former GOP Gov. Pete Wilson, says popular San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer dashed the Republican Party’s hopes recently by insisting again that he won’t enter the race, so “there is not an alpha in the field.” As a result, Republican candidates will get even less attention.
Which means “until any of these candidates show serious money or the ability to raise their name recognition, let’s forget about Donald Trump,” Whalen said. “He’s the least of their problems.”