California Republicans seek turnout boost to avert midterm disaster

California Republicans seek turnout boost to avert midterm disaster
© Greg Nash

California Republicans are mounting an under-the-radar campaign to bolster GOP turnout in order to avoid a disastrous electoral rout in the November midterms, even as they face mounting hurdles.

Senior Republicans from the state, including House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthy13 states accepted Sessions invitation to meeting on social media bias: report This week: Kavanaugh nomination thrown into further chaos How the Trump tax law passed: Breaking the gridlock  MORE and Rep. Mimi Walters, have targeted a gas tax increase passed by the state legislature last year as a possible rallying issue for GOP voters.

The Republicans have poured resources into a signature-gathering campaign to get a measure on the ballot repealing the gas tax, which Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed into law last summer.

Party officials believe Republican voters who might otherwise sit on their hands come November would be motivated to show up to vote to repeal the tax increase that went into effect last fall.

The vast majority of Republican candidates back repealing the tax increase, while Democrats are more divided.

“We pay one of the highest gasoline taxes in the nation,” Walters told The Hill. “By the time you get to 2021, we’re going to be paying $2 a gallon for gasoline just in taxes, and we can’t do that for working families who have to travel for their job.”

Walters said those backing a repeal of the gas tax were close to gathering the 365,880 signatures they need to qualify the initiative. The deadline for submitting the signatures is May 4. 

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Party leaders say the plans are necessary because the GOP faces the very real possibility that Republican candidates will fail to make the general election ballot in either of the state’s two marquee races this year: The battle to succeed term-limited Gov. Jerry Brown (D) and the race for Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinHere's what the judiciary committee should ask Christine Blasey Ford Kavanaugh to address sexual misconduct allegations on Fox News Monday Kavanaugh accuser Ford to Grassley: 'My fear will not hold me back from testifying' MORE’s (D) seat.

Candidates in California must secure one of the top two primary spots in June to face off in the general election, and any Republican who managed to do that would begin the general election campaign as a severe underdog.

Still, party officials say the prospect of missing out entirely on top-of-the-ticket races would hurt the party further by depressing turnout around the state — potentially impacting Republican chances of holding on to key U.S. House seats.

“The top of the ticket drives turnout, and this being a governor year, we must have a candidate in the general election,” said Ron Nehring, a former chairman of the state Republican Party who ran for lieutenant governor in 2014. “Failure to do so will keep many Republicans home, costing us critical down-ballot races for Congress, the state legislature and local offices.”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has identified 10 Republican-held seats as possible targets for takeover in the fall, including seats held by Walters and fellow Reps. Tom McClintockThomas (Tom) Milller McClintockElection Countdown: Takeaways from too-close-to-call Ohio special election | Trump endorsements cement power but come with risks | GOP leader's race now rated as 'toss-up' | Record numbers of women nominated | Latino candidates get prominent role in 2020 GOP scrambles to regain fiscal credibility with House budget House panel approves belated 2019 budget MORE, Jeff DenhamJeffrey (Jeff) John DenhamTrump attacks Dems on farm bill House Republicans push for vote on Violence Against Women Act Steyer group launching 0,000 digital ad campaign targeting millennials MORE, David ValadaoDavid Goncalves ValadaoDems make big play for House in California Immigration overhaul on life support in the House The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE, Devin NunesDevin Gerald NunesThe Hill's Morning Report — Ford, Kavanaugh to testify Thursday as another accuser comes forward House panel signals Russia probe document dump before midterms Russia probe accelerates political prospects for House Intel Dems MORE, Steve Knight, Ed RoyceEdward (Ed) Randall RoyceOvernight Defense: Latest on Korea talks | Trump says summit results 'very exciting!' | Congress to get Space Force plan in February | Trump asked CIA about silent bombs Poll: House GOP candidate leads in California swing district Overnight Defense: Congress reaches deal preventing shutdown | Pentagon poised to be funded on time for first time in years | House GOP rejects effort to get Putin summit documents MORE, Dana RohrabacherDana Tyrone RohrabacherGOP lawmaker makes light of Kavanaugh allegation: 'Give me a break' Election Countdown: Trump confident about midterms in Hill.TV interview | Kavanaugh controversy tests candidates | Sanders, Warren ponder if both can run | Super PACs spending big | Two states open general election voting Friday | Latest Senate polls Overnight Energy: Watchdog to investigate EPA over Hurricane Harvey | Panel asks GAO to expand probe into sexual harassment in science | States sue over methane rules rollback MORE, Darrell IssaDarrell Edward IssaTrump to nominate retiring lawmaker as head of trade agency Overnight Energy: Watchdog to investigate EPA over Hurricane Harvey | Panel asks GAO to expand probe into sexual harassment in science | States sue over methane rules rollback Green group targets California GOP House candidates in new ads MORE and Duncan HunterDuncan Duane HunterIndicted lawmaker angers GOP with decision to run for reelection Trump to nominate retiring lawmaker as head of trade agency Indicted GOP lawmaker to stay on ballot in New York this fall: report MORE

The party sees those California seats as such an important part of their path back to a majority in the House that the DCCC has opened a West Coast satellite office in Southern California.

Republicans “are currently on life support throughout California,” said Dave Jacobson, a Democratic strategist running several campaigns in Republican-held districts.

Tom Ross, a California Republican strategist who works for McCarthy, pointed out that many of the districts Democrats are targeting — especially those held by Denham, Valadao and Knight — are commuter districts where workers drive longer distances to get to their jobs.

The last time taxes on vehicles played such a big role in California politics, it helped bring down a Democratic governor. Back in 2003, California voters recalled then-Gov. Gray Davis (D), the same year he signed legislation dramatically increasing the vehicle license fee.

This time, while no one is clamoring to recall Brown, Los Angeles-area Republicans have filed enough signatures to force the recall of a state senator. That election will take place June 5

Some Republicans are not convinced the gas tax issue will resonate statewide, in part because supporters of the tax increase plan to spend millions of their own dollars against the repeal initiative.

“I’m not seeing the same degree of intensity that surrounded the issue” when Davis was recalled, said Justin Wallin, a Republican pollster based in Orange County.

The GOP has almost no shot of competing for Feinstein’s seat in the fall. Though 11 Republicans are running, the race is virtually certain to be a showdown between Feinstein and Kevin de León, the former state Senate president.

Republicans have a ray of hope in the race to replace Brown, who is term-limited. Wealthy businessman John Cox (R) has freely spent his own money in the governor's race and a survey from the Public Policy Institute of California released this week shows Cox hanging on to a narrow 15 percent to 13 percent edge over former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (D) for the second slot in the runoff behind Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), who has 26 percent support.

Cox met with Republican officials in Washington recently. 

“He’s feeling pretty good about it, he’s working very hard, and I would love to have a Republican in the runoff. I think our state — we need new leadership,” Walters said.

But Villaraigosa may be poised for a late charge. He will receive a boost from an outside group run by proponents of charter schools. That group received a $7 million contribution this week from Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix, and another $1.5 million from Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad, money that will be spent on late advertising.

“That kind of money, if it’s deployed appropriately, can completely change that dynamic. Villaraigosa lost his lead in a very short amount of time, and he can regain it in just as short an amount of time,” Wallin said.

Even with a candidate in the gubernatorial contest, Republicans could face trouble ginning up turnout in the midterms at a time when Democrats are enthusiastic and Republicans are depressed.

“I don’t see how a Republican gubernatorial candidate who can’t bring tremendous fundraising, star power or excitement to the race has coattails,” said Thad Kousser, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego. “We watched this movie in 2014, when Jerry Brown ran against an underfunded Neel Kashkari and saw the lowest turnout rate in state history. There’s no reason to think that the sequel will be any different.”

Walters, who sits in a district Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham Clinton2016 pollsters erred by not weighing education on state level, says political analyst Could President Trump's talk of a 'red wave' cause his supporters to stay home in midterms? Dem group targets Trump in M voter registration campaign: report MORE won over President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Republican threatens to push for Rosenstein impeachment unless he testifies Judge suggests Trump’s tweet about Stormy Daniels was ‘hyperbole’ not defamation Rosenstein faces Trump showdown MORE by a 5-point margin, said she isn’t depending on a gubernatorial candidate to drive turnout in her own race.

“Every person who’s running who’s a Republican has a responsibility to get their voters to the polls,” Walters said.