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 McCarthyOn The Money: Trump, China announce 'Phase One' trade deal | Supreme Court takes up fight over Trump financial records | House panel schedules hearing, vote on new NAFTA deal House panel to hold hearing, vote on Trump's new NAFTA proposal House passes sweeping Pelosi bill to lower drug prices 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 FeinsteinSanders revokes congressional endorsement for Young Turks founder Cenk Uygur Sanders endorses Young Turks founder Cenk Uygur for Katie Hill's former House seat Houston police chief stands by criticism of McConnell, Cruz, Cornyn: 'This is not political' 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 McClintockGOP lawmaker urges members to halt 'endless loop' of talking points Live coverage: House Judiciary to vote on impeachment after surprise delay Controversy on phone records intensifies amid impeachment MORE, Jeff DenhamJeffrey (Jeff) John DenhamBottom line Ex-Rep. Duffy to join lobbying firm BGR Former GOP Rep. Walters joins energy company MORE, David ValadaoDavid Goncalves ValadaoCalifornia Republican ousted in 2018 announces rematch for House seat The 8 House Republicans who voted against Trump’s border wall The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by T-Mobile — The political currents that will drive the shutdown showdown MORE, Devin NunesDevin Gerald NunesDemocrats launch bilingual ad campaign off drug pricing bill Koch campaign touts bipartisan group behind ag labor immigration bill Hillicon Valley: Apple, Facebook defend encryption during Senate grilling | Tech legal shield makes it into trade deal | Impeachment controversy over phone records heats up | TikTok chief cancels Capitol Hill meetings MORE, Steve Knight, Ed RoyceEdward (Ed) Randall RoyceMystery surrounds elusive sanctions on Russia Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers struggle to understand Facebook's Libra project | EU hits Amazon with antitrust probe | New cybersecurity concerns over census | Robocall, election security bills head to House floor | Privacy questions over FaceApp House panel advances bill to protect elections from foreign interference MORE, Dana RohrabacherDana Tyrone RohrabacherGeorge Papadopoulos launches campaign to run for Katie Hill's congressional seat The Hill's Morning Report - Trump, Biden go toe-to-toe in Iowa Ex-GOP lawmakers are face of marijuana blitz MORE, Darrell IssaDarrell Edward IssaDuncan Hunter to plead guilty to campaign finance violations Why the GOP march of mad hatters poses a threat to our Democracy Elijah Cummings, native son of Baltimore, gets emotional send-off from Democratic luminaries MORE and Duncan HunterDuncan Duane HunterHouse ethics watchdog finds 'substantial' evidence of financial misuse by Hunter Duncan Hunter announces plan to resign The Hill's Morning Report — Pelosi makes it official: Trump will be impeached 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 ClintonMore than 200,000 Wisconsin voters will be removed from the rolls Trump is threatening to boycott the debates — here's how to make sure he shows up Trey Gowdy returns to Fox News as contributor MORE won over President TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocrats ask if they have reason to worry about UK result Trump scramble to rack up accomplishments gives conservatives heartburn Seven years after Sandy Hook, the politics of guns has changed 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.