The Republican Party in California has been riven for decades between those who want to tack to the ideological center to expand its diminishing appeal and those who want it to enforce conservative purity. But the prospect of Donald Trump clinching the nomination in the Golden State has scrambled the party’s political fault lines in advance of its pivotal June primary, forging unexpected alliances that blur those longstanding divisions.
Tea party favorite Ted Cruz was endorsed Saturday by former Gov. Pete Wilson, a centrist governor who raised taxes and feuded regularly with conservatives. Trump, meanwhile, has snapped up support from stalwarts on California’s right, like conservative activist Ted Costa and former state Sen. Tony Strickland, and its middle, like former U.S. Rep. Doug Ose. Cruz might also be effectively helped by big-tent Republicans trying to stop Trump.
“There’s always been that conservative versus moderate, can you speak to the middle or only to the base? And this transcends that,” said Tim Clark, Trump’s state director and a seasoned GOP strategist here.
California caps the epic Republican contest with its June 7 primary. It will be the first time in memory that the state’s unusual system could decide a presidential nomination. The state will parcel out most of its delegates to the winners of each of its 53 congressional districts, with only 13 going to the statewide winner.
The state’s Republican presidential primaries are usually low-profile affairs, occurring after the nomination has been clinched. All sides agree that makes it very hard to predict how this race, expected to draw millions to the polls, will go.
There’s no question it will be tumultuous. That was made clear at the state party convention in Burlingame, a suburb just outside San Francisco airport. On Friday, Trump had to enter the convention hotel from a rear entrance to avoid hundreds of demonstrators who had pushed through police barricades to the front door of the hotel. The previous night, after the front-runner’s rally in Orange County, protesters damaged police cars and struggled with police.
California, the home turf of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, was once a reliable Republican state in presidential elections. But the party’s fortunes started to erode in the late 1990s after a series of measures targeting immigrants, which alienated growing segments of the state’s population. In 2007, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger warned party members that the GOP was “dying at the box office.”
The party has continued to shrivel — Republican registration accounts for just 28 percent of the state total. Democrats control every statewide office and both chambers of the Legislature. Republicans consider it a victory just to win one-third of state legislative races so it can have a say in state budgeting.
A polarizing figure like Trump might actually make the party’s relationship with California’s growing Hispanic and Asian voters worse, analysts warn. “He does nothing to ease that,” said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a veteran California political analyst at the University of Southern California.
The upcoming primary has triggered a surge in new voter registrations and they are overwhelmingly young, Democratic and Latino, according to Paul Mitchell, who runs a political data firm in Sacramento. Some of those voters may be drawn by the promise of voting for Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, but some may be registering to vote against Trump in November.
“Do the Republicans actually think they can win an election scaring every Hispanic in this country to death?” the other remaining GOP presidential candidate, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, asked during a news conference Friday in Burlingame.
Still, California Republicans are angry, too, and that could help Trump. “If you’re a Republican in California, you have a Democratic president you don’t like, Hillary Clinton is likely to be the Democratic nominee, you have a Democratic governor,” said Matt Rexroad, a GOP consultant. “If you’re one of these Republicans and you think everything is going wrong, what’s the best way to throw a wrench in everything? Donald Trump.”
Ose, a former congressman viewed as a moderate, said that’s why people of all ideological stripes are coalescing around Trump. “It’s not about philosophy for most of these people,” Ose said. “People are just fed up with business as usual.”
Cruz’s state political director, Michael Schroeder, agreed. “The traditional moderate-conservative divide has been redefined by an establishment-anti-establishment divide,” he said. Since both Trump and Cruz are outsiders, “people are saying, ‘I have to choose,'” Schroeder added. “Then the alliances don’t become unlikely. They become likely.”
Trump’s campaign hopes his dominance of the airwaves will let him run the table in a state where ground-level campaigning is often eclipsed by television ads and the media. The Cruz campaign hopes its long time organizing in the state will let it capture enough delegates in individual districts to block Trump. Kasich would be a fit with more technocratic California Republicans but his little-funded campaign may not be enough to capture the coastal areas where he’d play best.
Even those skeptical of Trump see why his appeal is broad in a party that is powerless in California. Chuck Page is mayor of the Silicon Valley suburb of Saratoga and talks of his friendship with Democratic politicians. He said it’s hard to be a Republican in the state.
“Everybody pounds it into you that you can’t win without a dramatic change,” Page said after hearing Trump give a 30-minute speak filled with his trademark braggadocio and jokes. “Listening today — I don’t buy into it — but that could be a dramatic change.”