Alan Burradell walks his rat terrier, Django, around San Francisco in a red, white and blue Donald Trump dog sweater. Across town, Tom Canaday sports a Ted Cruz button as he calls neighbors from a rent-controlled apartment urging them to support the conservative Texas senator.
Both men, outliers in one of the most liberal U.S. cities, have become crucial lieutenants in this year’s presidential election as GOP candidates descend on the state that has more delegates than any other. That’s because each of California’s 53 congressional districts, no matter how few Republicans live there, will award three delegates after voting concludes June 7.
With Trump and Cruz locked in a delegate-by-delegate battle for primacy at the Cleveland convention in July, and Ohio Governor John Kasich still a spoiler, California figures to have a consequential Republican primary role for the first time in 40 years. The candidates have begin holding rallies in the state and are establishing volunteer networks in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles County to seek out rare and isolated voters who could sway a district.
Trump’s campaign has called as many 1 million independent voters urging them to register as Republicans so they can vote for him. About 40 Cruz loyalists in the San Francisco Bay area started making phone calls to Republicans over the weekend.
“It’s a radical act to wear a Ted Cruz button in San Francisco,” said Canaday, 55. “Finally, I have an opportunity to make a difference.”
The strategy of picking off Republicans in liberal areas echoes the campaign in New York, where Democrat-dominated congressional districts in New York City yielded as many Republican delegates as more conservative areas upstate. That required Cruz to campaign gamely at a Dominican-Chinese restaurant in the Bronx, where Barack Obama won 97 percent of the vote in 2012. Kasich chowed down in front of cameras at an Italian deli nearby.
All three candidates are scheduled to address the California Republican Party convention near the San Francisco airport beginning Friday. Cruz, who named former California Senate candidate Carly Fiorina his running mate Wednesday, held two rallies in the state this month. Trump is set to speak in Orange County on Thursday evening. Kasich plans a town-hall meeting in San Francisco on Friday.
In California, Trump is leading Cruz by 17 percentage points, with Kasich trailing the front-runner by 28, according to the Real Clear Politics average of polls. Cruz’s campaign is countering Trump’s broader appeal by breaking California into 53 separate district-level contests, aided by a trio of strategists with decades of experience in California.
“It’s going to be hand-to-hand combat,” said Republican operative Tim Clark, whom Trump hired recently to run his California campaign. “You’re going to see Republicans working precincts in downtown Los Angeles and downtown San Francisco in a way we’ve never seen before.”
Burradell, a 53-year-old openly gay man who comes from a family of Democrats, switched his registration to Republican after hearing Trump’s messages on immigration and national security. Burradell, who owns a home-remodeling business, has had to explain his support for Trump to his mostly Hispanic workforce in light of Trump’s criticisms of Mexican immigrants.
“When I have my workers come into my office every Friday to pick up their paychecks, they look and see my Trump ball cap, Trump button, Trump coffee mug, my dog has a Trump sweater,” Burradell said. “They look at me really funny. But it’s clear to me that the message can get out there that this is good for our country and good for the immigrants. They have gotten so used to living in shame, in the corner and in the shadows.”
Many California Republicans are excited to play a role in any election, said Claire Chiara, 21, a University of California at Berkeley senior majoring in economics and political science.
“We are accustomed to being relegated to the sidelines,” she said. “We’re accustomed to losing a lot of battles throughout the state. And we’re accustomed to being largely irrelevant. Typically, the presidential campaigns don’t spend a lot of time here because it’s a deep blue state.”
As of January, 28 percent of California voters
are registered as Republicans, down from 35 percent in 1999. The party’s share has declined as conservatives moved to Nevada and Arizona, and as the number of independent and Latino voters has grown.
For Mark Dameron, a 46-year-old Republican activist in suburban Los Angeles who hasn’t taken sides, the burst of activity is bittersweet. Candidates will write off California after the primary, he fears. The state hasn’t voted Republican in a presidential election since 1988.
“We’re seeing the campaigns mobilizing now, but they’ll be gone after June 7,” he said.
Cruz has courted evangelical Christians and Tea Party backers in opposing abortion rights and same-sex marriage, while prevailing in conservative states such as Kansas and Oklahoma. California, too, has a large conservative electorate awash in an even larger sea of liberalism. In the 2014 gubernatorial election, a Tea Party-backed founder of the Minuteman project, which supported armed militias at the state’s border with Mexico, won more than 640,000 votes.
“California Republicans are overwhelmingly conservative,” said Ron Nehring, a former state party executive who is a co-chairman of the Cruz campaign there. “We placed a premium on organizing early, district by district. We know our voters.”
Kasich’s campaign has a different opinion of the California electorate. Rick Caruso, a Los Angeles shopping-mall developer who is Kasich’s state co-chairman, said he expects him to pick up support from moderate, business-minded Republicans.
“John is going to do very well here,” Caruso said. “Trump and Cruz are far too extreme for California.”
The last Republican elected statewide in California was Arnold Schwarzenegger, who won a second term as governor in 2006. He ran as a moderate, favored abortion rights and performed marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples. Schwarzenegger was initially elected in 2003 in a campaign that foreshadowed many themes of the Trump insurgency. Schwarzenegger now backs Kasich.
Republican consultant Dave Gilliard, who ran the recall campaign that brought Schwarzenegger to power, said this primary is another once-in-a-lifetime experience for California Republicans.
“Candidates who are smart are going to be spending time in districts that have never seen any Republican activity,” said Gilliard, who is not involved in the presidential campaigns. “This is a new experience for California Republican voters.”