California Republicans eager to recall Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom could see their chances eroded by longstanding friction between the party’s conservative and moderate wings, which only has intensified in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s presidency.
The rift has been on open display in the gubernatorial candidacy of former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, a Republican centrist who has been endorsed by legislative leaders while being attacked as “liberal” by conservatives in his home county.
The head of the state Republican Party, Jessica Millan Patterson, is being challenged at a GOP convention this weekend by longtime conservative activist Steve Frank, who says the state party is attempting to silence conservative voices.
The vote on party leadership will come as Republicans nationally debate the way forward following Trump’s defeat in November and his role in provoking a deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
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“This is California’s version of the national battle for the soul and the future of the Republican Party,” said Thad Kousser, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego.
While Trump lost California by more than 5 million votes last November, the state GOP has been emboldened by the prospect of a recall election aimed at Newsom, after picking off four congressional seats from Democrats. But “just when the Republican Party in California is showing signs of life, it’s deciding to cannibalize itself,” Kousser added.
Speaking online to delegates Friday, longtime Republican strategist Karl Rove urged party members to find a way through their differences.
“We got to figure out a way for us to come together behind the candidates that we nominate,” Rove said. “Right now, there is a lot of tension in our party. I get that. But we've got to do everything we individually can to look past that and look toward victory."
Even before the convention began, there were signs of trouble.
A proposed rule change that would have allowed the party’s executive committee of about 100 people to endorse a recall candidate, or hand the decision to an even smaller group, rather than the full delegation of about 1,400 members was withdrawn after being criticized as a power grab.
Patterson, who asked the sponsor to withdraw the rule change, said in a letter to delegates that while the proposal was well-intentioned it was “dividing us at a time when nothing is more important than being unified.”
With a potential recall election approaching, the GOP needs a “a strong, unified Republican vision,“ she wrote.
But Frank, her rival to lead the party, said the now-withdrawn proposal showed Patterson “was literally trying to shove down our throats her choice for governor, and that’s just wrong.”
The convention is shaping up as a series of skirmishes between the party’s two wings and also could play out in contested elections for lower-tier leadership posts.
Among the confrontations: A possible dispute about whether to censure U.S. Rep. David Valadao for his vote to impeach Trump. The Central Valley congressman was among 10 House Republicans who voted to send the articles of impeachment to the Senate, which acquitted Trump last week.
Delegate Erik Elness, a chief sponsor of the resolution that would have censured Valadao along with state Democratic House members for their votes, said he submitted the proposal Jan. 18 under party guidelines, but was later told it was improper and never forwarded to a committee for consideration.
He’s asking for that to be reconsidered and, if unsuccessful, also might try to bring it up during the convention’s general session on Sunday. “I don’t think it’s received the proper or appropriate airing it should have received,” he said.
For long-suffering California Republicans, party infighting could divide their ranks and make it more challenging to oust Newsom. Meanwhile, if no consensus pick emerges as a GOP favorite to replace him, multiple candidates could fracture the party’s base.
Republican businessman John Cox, who lost to Newsom in 2018, is also running, and another name being discussed in GOP circles is Trump’s former acting director of national intelligence, Richard Grenell, who has not responded to requests for comment on a possible candidacy.
The risk for the GOP is highlighted by the state’s last two U.S. Senate elections. In those races, crowded fields of lesser-known Republicans sliced up the GOP vote, allowing only two Democrats to advance to the November ballot under the state’s “top two” elections.
If it makes it to the ballot, the recall would offer Republicans a rare opportunity for a comeback in a state where Democrats hold every statewide office and a nearly 2-to-1 advantage in registered voters. The last time a Republican won a statewide election in California was 2006, when Arnold Schwarzenegger was reelected governor, the office he captured three years earlier in a recall election, and Republican Steve Poizner triumphed in the race for state insurance commissioner.
Rove and Florida Republican Sen. Rick Scott, who also spoke to delegates, both delivered encouraging messages about the party's future.
Rove noted that the GOP House candidates who picked up Democratic seats in the state last year were ethnically diverse, what he called “the face of the future Republican Party.” He said Democrats were out of touch with many Americans, and referred to the effort in San Francisco to remove the names of Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and other prominent figures from schools.
“The whole kind of defund the (police) movement and identity politics and all the goofiness that’s coming from the hard left of the Democratic Party doesn’t make a lot of sense” to working-class Americans, Rove said.
Scott, asked how the state party could improve its standing with Latinos, said GOP candidates need to connect with voters on jobs, schools, safe streets and other issues that matter to them. “Hispanics agree with us. They have families, just like all of us. We are all the same,” he said. "Show up. Talk to them."
Newsom was elected in a 2018 landslide but polls show his popularity has taken a hit as residents recoil from long-running coronavirus rules that have shuttered schools and businesses. He’s contending with a massive unemployment benefits scandal, while also taking a public drubbing for dining out last fall with friends and lobbyists at an extravagant restaurant while telling residents to stay home.
In a potential recall, the challenge for Republicans is finding a candidate who could hold new voters Trump brought into the electorate, but also appeal to moderates and independents needed to win statewide.
“You have to get a governor that cares about families. Newsom clearly doesn't,” Scott told the delegates.