California’s last-in-the-U.S. primary, so often an afterthought in presidential campaigns, now looms as potentially decisive for a splintered Republican Party.
Front-runner Donald Trump had to dodge protesters to tell California Republicans that he could win the presidency by carrying his native New York and other Democrat-leaning states. His remaining opponents, Ted Cruz and John Kasich, told party activists that they stand a better chance of winning the general election.
Each used appearances Friday and Saturday at the state party convention to claim the mantle of Republican unifier, though Trump also questioned the value of that role. In a state known both for progressive ideas and grass-roots conservatism, their maneuvering underscored the unusual nature of the 2016 race as a whole and California’s kingmaker role.
“California is going to decide this Republican primary,” Cruz said at the gathering in Burlingame, near San Francisco. “Who’da thunk it? Year after year, y’all are used to being treated by Republicans like an ATM. I can tell you right now we’re going to spend more money in California than we raise in California.”
June 7 primary is one of the final five contests this year, and since 1976 the state has voted after the nomination was essentially settled. Candidates had paid little attention before this month; Mike Huckabee and Rand Paul were the only hopefuls at California Republicans’ previous convention, in September, and they suspended campaigning months ago.
While many of California’s 172 potential delegates were among the more than 1,000 party regulars at the convention this weekend, Trump continued to denounce the selection process as “rigged” and predicted he would win enough delegates in the final 10 contests to secure the nomination outright.
The turmoil surrounding the contest was evident in Trump’s arrival: The New York real estate developer evaded protesters who blocked the entrance to the hotel; he did an end-run around a police barrier by slipping through an opening in a freeway wall and entering through a back passageway.
“There has to be unity in our party,” Trump told attendees of a Friday luncheon. “With that being said, can I win without it? I think so, to be honest.”
Cruz, the Texas senator, and Kasich, the Ohio governor, rejected that notion. Neither is mathematically able to capture the nomination before the national party convention in Cleveland in July, and both are pinning their hopes to winning delegates pledged to vote for other candidates on the first ballot.
Both told party activists in California that backing Trump meant forfeiting the White House to a Democrat for the third consecutive term.
“What I’m really, fundamentally interested in is making sure Hillary Clinton is not president,” Kasich told reporters before his dinner speech Friday. “And Donald Trump, if he were to be picked, he would get crushed in the fall. I’m the only one who beats Hillary Clinton consistently.”
Cruz arrived in California Friday night in a detour from campaigning in Indiana, met with supporters Saturday morning and addressed the convention at lunchtime. His vice presidential pick, Carly Fiorina, who unsuccessfully ran for the Senate from California in 2010, was scheduled to speak Saturday night.
Former California Governor Pete Wilson, who served two terms in the 1990s, endorsed Cruz on Saturday. Former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the last Republican to hold statewide office in California, has endorsed Kasich, but Schwarzenegger didn’t attend the convention and instead spent Friday and Saturday promoting a line of clothing.
The Real Clear Politics
average of California polls shows Trump leading Cruz in the state by more than 17 percentage points, with Kasich in third place. Trump also is leading in the polls in Indiana, whose vote Tuesday could put the New Yorker on a path to winning the nomination outright if he fares well in California.
“It’s coming to an end,” Trump said at the California convention. “I think it’s going to come to an end very soon.”
Trump met privately with supporters before his speech, during which he fielded advice such as showcasing his wife, Melania Trump, to counter accusations of misogyny.
His two appearances in California last week attracted protests that were met with police in riot gear. In the Orange County city of Costa Mesa, protesters shouted profanities, smashed the rear window of a squad car and attempted to flip over the vehicle. At the convention hotel, protesters locked arms to try to stop Trump’s motorcade, breached a police barrier, burned a flag and hurled eggs.
Helicopters filmed Trump’s entourage slipping through a back entrance.
“It felt like I was crossing the border, actually,” said Trump, who has made fighting illegal immigration from Mexico a pillar of his campaign. “I’m coming through dirt and mud and under fences.”
Kasich, who is running a distant third to Trump and Cruz, pointed to the protests and Trump’s clandestine arrival as a sign of the billionaire’s divisiveness.
“Do you see what’s happening?” Kasich asked reporters. “Do the Republicans actually think they can win an election by scaring every Hispanic in this country to death? Do you have any idea what those folks are going to do in a general election?”