March 11, 2021
OAKLAND — A campaign to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom offers California Republicans their best chance in a generation to retake the blue-state governorship. First, they have to get their own house in order.
The shrunken California Republican Party is hoping to revive its fortunes by capitalizing on coronavirus discontent to unseat Newsom. The prospect of toppling a Democratic governor with White House aspirations has energized California conservatives and drawn national attention and funding.
But fault lines are already emerging within the would-be GOP governor movement. Republicans hoping to replace Newsom are bludgeoning one another even before the recall has qualified, accusing one another of being too establishment, too inexperienced or too moderate. The early California jockeying reflects simmering national tensions in the wake of President Donald Trump’s departure.
“Republicans are headed for a clash in the 2022 primaries about who’s going to control the party — is it going to be Trump and his acolytes or is the party going to move on with establishment conservatives like Liz Cheney?” said Republican strategist Rob Stutzman, who worked on the successful 2003 recall campaign for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. “It’s essentially an earlier, available version for this proxy fight to take place.”
As California has turned increasingly liberal and Democratic over the past two decades, Republicans have virtually no hope of winning the California governorship in a general election. The party hasn’t won a statewide office since Schwarzenegger’s re-election in 2006, after which the movie star warned Republicans they were “dying at the box office” in California because they were too conservative.
A recall poses two questions to voters on a ballot expected this fall: whether to keep the governor and who should replace him. If Newsom cannot muster a majority on the first question, there is no limit to candidates who can put their name in as potential successors — and the list cannot include Newsom. If the vote total splits among numerous contenders, the path to the governorship could run through a small plurality.
Two prominent Republicans have already launched their campaigns — former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and businessman John Cox, who lost badly to Newsom in 2018. From the start, they have launched broadsides at each other. And that’s before other potential Republican heavyweights such as Richard Grenell, the former Trump administration official, have engaged in the race.
Some conservatives are issuing early warnings that excessive infighting could cost them a singular opportunity. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) said in a radio interview this week that a Republican would prevail only if there’s a candidate that “basically everybody unites behind,” lest a crowded field fracture the vote.
Channeling frustration with Newsom may not be enough for a Republican to carry a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 5 million voters. California conservatives would need to coalesce behind a candidate who can bridge establishment-minded centrists and the loyalist base.
“I think that’s going to be the biggest thing we’re worried about going forward,” said Greg Lansing, a prominent San Diego Republican donor who served as a Trump delegate. “At some point at least one of them needs to drop out. Republicans shouldn’t be fighting amongst themselves.”
Faulconer is seeking to position himself as the most viable moderate contender. He rode support from mainline business groups and other traditional Republican supporters to become mayor of California’s second-largest city. While Faulconer voted for former President Donald Trump in 2020 and visited the president at the White House, he also distanced himself from Trump’s hardline positions on issues like immigration, promoting cross-border trade over a border wall.
Since launching his gubernatorial run, Faulconer has quickly sought to position himself as the establishment pick. He rolled out a slate of endorsements from Republican lawmakers. A mailer from his campaign stresses that Faulconer was able to win in populous, diverse San Diego by persuading independent voters. That offers a “credible shot at winning statewide, despite California’s challenging voter registration,” the piece argues.
But convincing the Chamber of Commerce is different from convincing MAGA adherents. Faulconer’s foes are already seeking to portray him as a milquetoast moderate who would not excite voters. Cox, who lost to Newsom in a landslide in 2018, has highlighted dubious real estate deals to try and portray Faulconer as corrupt. Cox attacked his rival in an ad entitled “Gavin Faulconer.”
“I’m attacking corruption. I’m attacking incompetence and mismanagement. I don’t care if it’s Republican or Democrat,” Cox said in an interview. “I don’t think Kevin Faulconer has any business running for governor.”
Faulconer has also drawn steady fire from former San Diego Councilman Carl DeMaio, a longtime rival and staunch Trump supporter who hosts a popular conservative talk radio show. DeMaio launched a website that portrays Faulconer as a liberal in disguise, drawing a public rebuke from Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).
Choosing an establishment-favored centrist like Faulconer would squander the energy and enthusiasm galvanizing California Republicans, DeMaio argues. He said California Republicans, desperate for a victory, have “demoralized the base” by seeking to elevate someone more like the Democrats.”
“It is vitally important to rebuild the infrastructure in the state. A recall race – win, lose, or draw – can be a real turning point for the Republican Party. You can only do this if you have a candidate you can be proud of and who can motivate the base,” DeMaio said in an interview, arguing that Faulconer’s ascendancy was “part of the death-spiral of the Republican party” and calling Faulconer “Meg Whitman without the dress.”
DeMaio has advocated instead for Grenell, who served in the Trump administration as ambassador to Germany and acting director of national intelligence. Grenell has laid some initial groundwork for a potential run and hinted at it during a Conservative Political Action conference speech.
If Grenell enters the race, he would likely draw in Trump loyalists and drain support from Faulconer and Cox. He could tap into a national funding network. But Newsom and his allies would welcome an opportunity to make the recall a referendum on Trump — a point the Faulconer camp is all too happy to make.
While Trump was broadly toxic in California, he was immensely popular among the Republican base. More than six million Californians voted for him in 2020. California Republicans have struggled for years to reconcile Trump’s enduring appeal with pleas to resuscitate the party with a more inclusive, centrist message that can bring in independent voters.
The all-comers dynamic of California’s recall could actually buoy Republicans, argued Anne Dunsmore, a Republican veteran of the 2003 recall who manages one of committees gathering signatures. She argued that multiple Republican candidates could weaken Newsom with a barrage from all sides, although she conceded there is more of a risk if a single fallback Democrat runs and consolidates the liberal vote.
“I think there are people waiting and I think there are Democrats on that list,” Dunsmore said, but if multiple credible Republicans are running, “they might beat on each other a bit but Newsom is going to be a target for about $30 [million] to $50 million of advertising and effort to point out how bad he is.”
Optimistic Republicans argue that the jockeying will subside as the strongest candidate emerges. They point to the 2003 recall, a melee that drew in scores of candidates but resulted in Schwarzengger winning back the governorship for Republicans. “The field consolidated, and the strongest Republican won, and we put the state on a different path,” said Ron Nehring, a Faulconer surrogate and former California Republican Party chair.
“The one criteria that matters more than any other is the Republican candidate needs the proven ability to win in Democratic areas, and Kevin Faulconer has done that,” Nehring said. “That’s critically important when running statewide in today’s California.”
San Diego has served as launching pad for Republicans who “have demonstrated they can win and show leadership in a place that’s thought of as a more left-leaning environment,” said Robb Korinke, a Democratic strategist. But that may not be the type of credential a plurality of Republican voters are looking for. Korinke described Faulconer as the “type of Republican who’s interested in bond yields, not Dr. Seuss.”
“Is it going to be that talk radio brand of conservatism or someone who has occupied city hall in an urban environment?” Korinke said. “How popular is Mitt Romney on talk radio? Not very.”