Los Angeles Times


Far from unifying the state party, campaign reveals divisions with no easy way forward.

- By Melanie Mason and Seema Mehta

California Republican­s thought they found a unifying rallying cry in the recall attempt against Gov. Gavin Newsom. Instead, the campaign exposed — and even worsened — some of the long-standing clashes between the establishm­ent and grass-roots base, while leaving unsettled the question of how the party can stop its losing streak in the state.

The GOP can take comfort in knowing it made Newsom sweat far more than any Democrat has in the last decade of statewide races, at least until the polls closed and the governor easily prevailed.

The lopsided outcome underscore­s how the party’s daunting climb back to political relevance is made all the more difficult by the recall effort’s missed opportunit­ies and internecin­e squabbles.

The state party failed to coalesce around a candidate to replace Newsom or muster the money to counter the governor’s sizable war chest. The candidate long seen by Republican leaders as a potential savior — Kevin Faulconer, the moderate former mayor of San Diego — failed to gain traction with voters. Larry Elder captivated the conservati­ve base, but moderates and hard-liners alike worry about his ability to expand his support if he runs for governor next year.

To veterans of the state’s Republican politics, the

recall fallout fits into a broader pattern of dysfunctio­n.

“In California, Republican­s don’t fall in line,” said Bill Whalen, once a top aide to former Gov. Pete Wilson, tweaking a well-worn political cliche about the GOP’s supposed discipline. “Instead, they line up to fall all over one another.”

Jessica Millan Patterson, chairwoman of the state GOP, said there were some silver linings to the recall process — citing an increase in the number of volunteers and contacts with voters — but acknowledg­ed the results were hardly ideal.

“In my career, I’ve learned a lot more from my losses than I have from my wins,” she said. “This is a great opportunit­y for us to build.”

The state party’s tug of war between the establishm­ent and its grass roots predates Patterson’s tenure by decades. Their difference­s are a matter of varying shades of red; staunch conservati­ves tend to lean into the culture wars with fervent opposition to abortion, gun control and illegal immigratio­n, while moderates downplay those social issues and emphasize businessfr­iendly policies instead.

But the disputes go beyond matters of policy. There are also geographic rivalries — Republican­s in northern, rural and inland areas are often at odds with those from the major cities — and a deep skepticism among the grass roots of the profession­al political class of consultant­s, lobbyists and many elected officials.

Although the state has become a deeper shade of blue, there are plenty of California­ns whose politics are aligned with the reddest areas of the country, and their clout among the grass roots has grown as moderates leave the party.

“The registered Republican­s that are left in California philosophi­cally are right in there with Republican­s in Texas or Republican­s in Tennessee,” said Jon Fleischman, a longtime GOP activist and former executive director of the party.

Republican­s are in agreement they are in need of a turnaround, but find little consensus on how to do it. Moderate Republican­s say the party must broaden its appeal beyond its hard-right flank even if that means sacrificin­g ideologica­l purity.

In 2007, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzene­gger famously warned his party that “in movie terms, we are dying at the box office.” On Wednesday, his assessment was even worse: “It’s now directto-video.”

Schwarzene­gger was largely reviled by the Republican base by the time he left office for failing to hew to the party’s orthodoxie­s. But he said the GOP’s refusal to adapt its stances on climate change, healthcare, women’s issues and the pandemic is precisely why they lost the latest recall election.

He thought the party would have learned from its recent string of losses — “that they failed and they would understand why and make adjustment­s. But they haven’t,” he said. He accused his fellow Republican­s of doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result: “It’s the definition of insanity.”

Aaron Park, a blogger who was a GOP party activist in California for two decades, said he’s used to hearing moderates blame conservati­ves like him for their losses. But he believes their preference for more centrist candidates is doomed to fail.

“You’re trying to run against a Democrat as a ‘Democrat Lite,’ ” Park said. “If people are given the choice between Budweiser and Bud Lite, people are going to drink Budweiser.”

Patterson, the party chair, said she did not see it as a choice between two opposing factions. “I want to make room for everybody,” she said. “There’s too few of us in California to be at odds with one another.”

The recall effort was launched not by the California Republican Party apparatus, but by a band of activists who had unsuccessf­ully tried to trigger Newsom’s removal several times before.

Anne Hyde Dunsmore, campaign manager for the pro-recall group Rescue California, said the party “was not there for us in an active way” until just before the effort qualified for the ballot, when the GOP supplied a vital infusion of cash. Nor was the state GOP working in coordinati­on with them once the campaign got underway, except in a few key congressio­nal districts.

The waning influence of party leaders was on full display last month, when the state GOP voted not to endorse any candidate in the recall race. In the past, party operatives had used the arcane endorsemen­t process to elevate its preferred candidates and coalesce the Republican vote behind them.

The conservati­ve grass roots has chafed at those maneuvers. When it came time to consider endorsing in the recall election, they resisted attempts to put the party’s backing behind Faulconer, whom they saw as a proxy for the establishm­ent they despised.

Patterson, who initially supported the party making an endorsemen­t, said on Wednesday the entire party delegation chose not to align with a candidate, keeping the focus instead on the question of recalling Newsom. (The two-step ballot asked voters first to weigh in on removing Newsom, and, separately, who should replace him.) But people familiar with the process said some in party leadership tried to steer the backing to Faulconer, only to reverse course when it was clear they would fail.

A party endorsemen­t would probably not have been determinat­ive in the recall effort, which hinged more on the outcome of the question of whether Newsom should be ousted than consensus on who should replace him. Still, the discord stood in contrast to the Democratic Party, which has been beset by its own power struggle between moderates and progressiv­es, but united to prevent a major Democrat from hopping into the race to avoid muddling their anti-recall message.

Faulconer, in his concession speech Tuesday, made the case for the party to tack to the center, asserting that “California Republican­s can’t look inward and appeal to ourselves. We have to build a big-tent coalition.”

But he acknowledg­ed doubts about his ability to be the party’s standardbe­arer in 2022. “I’m going to take the time to talk with my family and supporters, and decide how best to serve the people of our state,” he said.

If he does make another attempt next year, his challenge is twofold: expanding his reach to those outside the GOP while winning over the party’s skeptical base.

“One of the services Faulconer has actually done for the GOP is accidental­ly unify the grass roots,” said Park, the blogger. “Faulconer has become the poster child for all the problems they all see” in the party.

While nearly half of voters opted not to choose a replacemen­t candidate, Elder’s commanding firstplace finish among those who did makes him the prohibitiv­e favorite among Republican­s in next year’s governor’s race.

“The candidates who finish very far behind Larry Elder will have a lot of explaining to do to the donor community on why they would be a viable candidate in 2022,” said Jim Brulte, a former state GOP chair and legislativ­e leader.

As of Thursday evening, Faulconer was in third place, behind Elder and Kevin Paffrath, a Democrat and YouTube star.

Though Elder said his recall campaign cemented him as a powerful voice in the state GOP, on Thursday he cast doubt on running in 2022.

“It’s hard to see how the outcome would be any different unless I was able to raise at least as much money as Gavin Newsom has spent, but even then the thing is daunting,” he said to KTLA.

For moderates, Elder’s continued influence is more evidence the recall effort was ultimately an act of Republican self-sabotage.

“At the end of all of this, the governor is going to stay in office and be emboldened,” said Assemblyma­n Chad Mayes, a onetime GOP legislativ­e leader who left the party and now represents Yucca Valley as an independen­t. Among Republican­s, “the people who are successful are the conservati­ve shock jocks, and [Faulconer] — the one guy who most reflected California’s values and could provide a message for the Republican Party to grow on — is going to be done.”

And there’s one other outcome Mayes sees from the recall attempt — a clear decision in the perennial power struggle to shape the direction of the Republican Party.

“It’s the establishm­ent versus the activists,” Mayes said, “and the activists have clearly won.”

 ?? Gregory Bull Associated Press ?? THE CAMPAIGN of former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer never took off, as GOP voters heavily favored Larry Elder over Faulconer’s relative centrism.
Gregory Bull Associated Press THE CAMPAIGN of former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer never took off, as GOP voters heavily favored Larry Elder over Faulconer’s relative centrism.

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