California Republicans have a golden opportunity to strengthen their weakened status during the recall campaign even if they fail to boot Gov. Gavin Newsom.
But a win-lose scenario isn’t a sure thing. It could easily turn into a lose-lose outcome, depending on how Republicans play it.
It’s highly unlikely to wind up win-win for the GOP.
The odds on Newsom surviving seem astronomical.
He’s much more popular than Gov. Gray Davis was when he was recalled in 2003. No Republican candidate has nearly the voter appeal that actor Arnold Schwarzenegger did when he ousted Democrat Davis. California is a much more Democratic state today than 18 years ago. And the incumbent will have a huge fundraising advantage.
“I think Newsom stays in office,” says veteran Republican consultant Matt Rexroad. “If anybody wants to bet me $100 straight up, I’ll take the bet.”
Someone who might take the bet is Jessica Millan Patterson, chairwoman of the California Republican Party. She insists there’s “a great opportunity” to dump Newsom.
But Bob Shrum, a former Democratic strategist who is director of the Center for the Political Future at USC, says that by the time the expected special election is held in fall, “the pandemic could well be under control and California’s economy … booming.”
“The recall will become nothing more than psychic satisfaction for Republicans — until they get the results on election night,” he said.
OK, but before that the GOP will have rare access to a golden mic to shout its message to voters.
“People are going to pay attention,” predicts Republican consultant Dave Gilliard, a major strategist in collecting the 1.5 million voter signatures needed to qualify the recall effort for the ballot.
“This is the biggest [California] political story of the year.”
“Republicans have to start clawing back bit by bit, and it’s not going to happen in one election cycle,” says Republican consultant Rob Stutzman, who was Schwarzenegger’s communications director.
The California GOP hasn’t elected a statewide officeholder since 2006. And its status in the Legislature has tumbled into a virtually irrelevant super minority.
Republicans could begin rehabilitating their image among moderate Democrats and independents by articulating solutions to problems that trouble centrist voters most: public education, affordable housing, homelessness, middle-class jobs and high taxes.
“The Republican Party should make the case that under one of its candidates, schools would have opened earlier,” Rexroad says.
There’s certainly a market for that pitch. A recent UCLA survey found that three-quarters of Los Angeles County parents with public school children believed their kids have been “substantially hurt” by stay-at-home Zoom classes.
“The challenge for Republicans is to come across as the party of governance and not insurrection,” says Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College.
Pitney is a former Republican National Committee official who reregistered as an independent the night Donald Trump was elected president in 2016.
“Voters are looking for competent governance,” says GOP advisor Mike Madrid, who in recent years has been an outspoken critic of the California party and Trump. “They’re not looking for gladiators in the social war.”
The GOP should roll out positive high-road messages about how it would make life better for Californians. But that doesn’t mean the candidates shouldn’t take some low-road negative shots at Newsom. There’s plenty for him to be held accountable for.
“They should tell voters directly what they would do differently,” Pitney says. “Talk about costs and benefits of the governor’s policies. How they can provide services at lower costs. How voters are paying too much money for too little.
“They can go after Newsom for being too close to the unions.”
Especially the teachers unions that have balked at reopening classrooms. Newsom has lectured, but not ordered them to return to campus. Perhaps he legally can’t, but he hasn’t tried either.
Republicans already have benefitted from the recall effort in one way: GOP activists have been pumped.
“The volunteer base was very depressed going into this year,” Gilliard says. “This has given volunteers something to rally around. That can be very valuable in ‘22 in all the local campaigns.”
Patterson says the state party has added 14,000 volunteers since last year’s elections.
Under her leadership, the California GOP has taken some steps forward — or at least stopped stumbling in reverse.
The party’s voter registration ceased plummeting, although it’s still a paltry 24% compared with the Democrats’ 46%.
In November, Republicans won back four of the seven congressional seats they lost in 2018.
Voters sided with the GOP view on several major state ballot measures.
“It’s not that Republicans don’t have a winning message. It’s that they’ve had bad messengers,” Madrid says.
“People may like what Republicans are selling, but they don’t like the Republicans. They don’t trust Republicans.”
“California has lots of very serious problems that this governor hasn’t addressed,” Madrid continues. “But Californians are not going to turn over that range of power to a Trumper. Until Republicans understand that, they’re going to be digging their hole deeper.”
That’s one way the recall attempt could turn into a lose-lose for Republicans — if they’re drawn by Democrats into defending the unpopular former president.
“Don’t talk about Trump,” Stutzman advises GOP candidates. “If they’re criticizing each other for not being ‘Trump enough,’ it’s like dumping gas and lighting matches.”
Trump’s a proven landslide loser in California. That’s the easy touch Newsom is trying to run against.
But some issues are GOP winners for the future: education, housing, jobs and taxes. Shout about them.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.