The special election to recall Gavin Newsom is coming up this Fall, and the two questions on the ballot might serve as a metaphor for the dilemma confronting Republicans in California. Question one is binary: Do you want to recall the governor, or don’t you? On this question, California’s Republicans have come together. They all would like to see Newsom go.
Question two, however, presents fundamental challenges to Republican unity. It is a multiple choice question, “who do you want to replace Newsom?,” with candidates galore to choose from. So far, all of them are Republicans. Inevitably and increasingly, these candidates are choosing not only to disparage their common foe, Governor Newsom, but also to disparage each other.
In a broader sense, this typifies what Republicans have been doing for years in California. They cohere fairly well on what they oppose. Taxes are too high, there are too many regulations, and public schools are failing, especially in low income communities. Poverty rates lead the nation, as does homelessness. The forests are burning, crime is rising, and the state remains on partial mass lockdown. But what are California’s Republicans for?
The unanimity of California’s Republicans against the failed policies of Governor Newsom, and by extension the party he represents, deserves recognition even if it isn’t enough to merely come together to oppose a candidate and his party. What happened over the past year was a triumph of teamwork. It was a triumph of shared purpose over endemic rivalries and turf wars. It was a merging of grassroots passion and institutional power that may be unprecedented in its scale.
Republicans need to hold onto the chemistry that achieved this breakthrough. The grassroots army, Recall Gavin 2020, gathered 1.3 million recall signatures by recruiting and training thousands of volunteers. These volunteer upstarts were able to successfully collaborate with committees ran by experienced professionals, most notable among them the Rescue California PAC which got the recall effort across the finish line by gathering an additional 800,000 signatures. Even the California Republican Party got involved, contributing $125,000 to the recall effort.
Chemistry can be volatile, however. It would not take much to blow up the combustible mix of forces that joined together to recall the governor. Such an attempt was made recently in an article published by the Voice of San Diego, entitled “‘It’s a Promote-Carl Organization’: The Rise of Reform California.” On the surface, the intent of the article is to question the spending of Carl DeMaio’s four year old PAC, Reform California. But the larger purpose is to fracture the fragile alliances that have formed among Republicans over the past year.
The writer of this hit piece, Andrew Keatts, contacted Republican political consultants up and down California, coming up with a series of quotes that cast Reform California in a questionable light. The point here isn’t to defend or to attack DeMaio, who some will argue is a controversial figure. DeMaio, who was one of the first politicians, anywhere, to stand up to public employee unions and fight for pension reform, has paid his dues. And DeMaio is also one of the pioneers of what during 2020 moved closer to realization than ever – a merging of grassroots activism with professional political campaigning.
In Keatts’ article, this was acknowledged by one of DeMaio’s own former colleagues, who said, “I’ll agree that was about him being an asshole and bullying people into forming a coalition between the grassroots and the establishment. The structural model of how we did campaigns — the candidate does their thing, the Lincoln Club, the Chamber and affiliated groups do their thing, party does its thing — for the time we were doing well, we were more effective and efficient than the left. We were snipers, and they had shotguns. That model… it was the San Diego model. There was a reputation that San Diego Republicans were doing something different, and Carl could credibly take credit.”
“For a time we were more effective and efficient than the left.”
History repeats itself. That time came again, in 2020, and as a result, Gavin Newsom is fighting for his political life.
One of the biggest deceptions that Democrats still get away with is the idea that Republicans have all the big donors on their side and can outspend Democrats. This is so far from the truth it’s laughable. In California, public employee unions, which collect and spend nearly $1.0 billion per year, donate almost exclusively to Democrats. And then there are California’s billionaires, from Tom Steyer to Reed Hastings to Mark Zuckerberg and many others, who have thrown around millions, and at times hundreds of millions, to support Democrats. The Republicans in California are so outgunned it is a miracle they win any races, anywhere.
This is why attempts to divide Republicans must be seen in a larger context. Mistakes are made. Money isn’t always spent as efficiently as it should be spent. Committees are formed and donors are solicited, and political consultants vie for jobs and patrons in ruthless, unending struggle. That is normal hardball politics in America. But Democrats can afford these inefficiencies. They can wash away any serious conflict with rivers of money. The Republicans have no such luxury.
The recall election will pit Republican gubernatorial candidates in bitter conflict with each other, and dragged into it will be their donors and their consultants and their volunteers. And when the bloody showdown ends, there is at least an even chance Gavin Newsom will emerge battered but still in possession of his office.
To save their party, to build their party, and possibly for one of them to even prevail in the showdown against Gavin Newsom this fall, California’s gubernatorial hopefuls need to use the opportunity of this election to explain what Republicans are for, not just what they’re against. The list is long and some of the items are obvious:
- School choice
- Responsible forest management
- Investment in water infrastructure to increase the supply
- CEQA reform
- Kill the bullet train and widen the freeways
- Help the homeless by getting immediate, inexpensive shelters constructed and use the savings to give them drug counseling and job training
- Take away the barriers to new home construction
- End the regressive, endless, pointless wars on cars, on police, on suburbs, on small businesses.
Practical solutions abound. Talk about them. Pick a half-dozen and agree on them. Fight each other, fight Newsom, but agree and jointly proclaim an agenda for California that Republicans can deliver, and Democrats cannot. Work together, even in the fight that’s coming.
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