By Tom Elias
It’s well established that the California Republican Party has been almost without influence in the state’s public affairs for years, but at least until now it has always placed someone on the fall runoff ballot running for at least one top state office.
That streak of more than 140 years’ standing seems about to end. It is almost certain, for one example, that no Republican will seriously contest Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s reelection bid this November, the role of prime challenger going to fellow Democrat Kevin de Leon, longtime president of the state Senate. Mere days before the filing deadline, no significant Republican had entered the race.
Things are almost as sad for the GOP in the run for the ballot’s other top slot, the governor’s office. Recent polling shows all three of the decently-funded declared Republican candidates for governor – Orange County Assemblyman Travis Allen, San Diego County businessman John Cox and former Sacramento-area Congressman Doug Ose – trail three of the four Democrats in the race.
But if the putative vote totals of those three are combined, they total 18 percent in those polls, with 24 percent of all voters still undecided. As long as the GOP remains splintered, that makes it likely November will match Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, each drawing support from more likely voters than all three Republicans together.
This means the GOP needs the kind of discipline it often displayed in the last century, when hot intra-party contests were rare for Republicans.
In those years, Democrats often staged heated primary election races, just like this year’s. But back then every officially-recognized party was guaranteed a November ballot slot, no matter how few votes its candidates might pull in the primary.
Passage of the 2010 Proposition 14 and the advent of the top two primary changed all that. Now candidates for all parties must earn their runoff election slots. If you don’t finish in the top two in the spring, you won’t contest anything in the fall.
So reality at times demands discipline from both major parties. There have been races where so many Democrats ran that they splintered the vote and allowed two Republicans to contest the runoff even in districts where Democrats led in voter registration.
If Republicans exhibit some discipline and coalesce around one candidate this spring, some Democrats would have to drop out in response, or risk letting the GOP get at least get one ballot position.
So far, there are few signs of any such party survival instinct for the GOP in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 45-27 percent margin.
Those numbers scared off potentially strong candidates for governor like former Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin and current San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer.
This leaves the GOP with a trio of previous unknowns who have spent some of their early debates sniping at each other more than at the Democrats. More of this behavior appears likely to make the November vote the first since the mid-19th Century without a Republican running for governor.
But this doesn’t have to end up being the second single-party runoff election for a top-of-ticket office since the advent of top two. (The first matched Democrats Kamala Harris and Loretta Sanchez in the 2016 Senate race.) That’s up to the GOP. If the party’s voters had one candidate to rally around, they might combine with some independents to total even more than their current registration percentage. If Republican voters were motivated, they could easily tally 30 percent or more of the total vote, probably enough to win a ballot slot. And once someone reaches the ballot, upsets can happen.
The risk to Republicans is that if they don’t quality a runoff candidate, they will become even less relevant than they’ve been lately in California, and their registration numbers would very likely drop beneath the 24 percent of state voters who now declare no party preference.
So the question now is simple: Will two of the three current GOP candidates put their egos aside for the good of their party and drop out? At this writing, that looks unlikely.