More than a year after leaving office, former President Donald Trump still looms large over the Republican Party across the country. Seeking to maintain the fierce devotion of GOP voters as he eyes another presidential run in 2024, Trump continues to hold regular campaign rallies that draw thousands of attendees, while his endorsements are scrambling races from Pennsylvania to Ohio to Georgia as he attempts to play kingmaker in crucial primaries.
Not so much in California.
Even as Republican hopefuls in other states compete to prove which of them is most closely aligned to Trump and his agenda, his name is all but absent from campaigns for governor and other statewide offices in California, where he won less than a third of the vote in 2016 and only slightly more in 2020. False claims that he was robbed of a second term through election fraud no longer abound here.
In a handful of potentially competitive races, perhaps the GOP’s best opportunities to snap a losing streak for statewide office that stretches back to 2006, some major candidates are even distancing themselves from Trump and refusing to say whether they voted for the former president.
The strategy suggests their campaigns, before the June primary has even taken place, are already looking beyond the conservative base to appeal to a broader electorate in the November election. That might get a politician chased out of Texas for disloyalty, but it hasn’t caused much of a stir among California Republicans.
Several publicly ambivalent candidates won the state party endorsement at its convention in Anaheim last weekend, in one case over a more pointedly Trump-aligned competitor. The former president’s greatest displays of support were stray memorabilia for sale at vendor booths and a few shout-outs in candidate forums.
Jim Brulte, a former chairperson for the state party, said GOP candidates have no need to cling to Trump because they have a better message to sell to voters this year about the failures of Democratic President Joe Biden.
“If Democrats want to make this election about Donald Trump, I’m happy to have that argument,” he said. “When Donald Trump was president, we had lower oil prices, lower gas prices, we had relatively little or no inflation.”
That’s not to suggest that enthusiasm for Trump has somehow evaporated in California. Republicans, despite representing a shrinking minority of the electorate, still number more than 5 million across the state, and many of them adore the former president.
“We support President Trump, and we support everything that he stands for,” Randall Jordan, chairperson of the Tea Party California Caucus, said at the convention. “We’re hoping that either he runs again, or we have another strong candidate for 2024.”
Days after audio leaked of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield telling a group of Republican leaders that he would push Trump to resign following the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, McCarthy appeared to be in minor damage control mode during his convention keynote address on Saturday evening, when he suggested that Trump should have won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Republicans hoping for victory in deep blue California nonetheless must strike a careful balance. Trump remains overwhelmingly unpopular across most of the state and Democrats have been able to capitalize on that toxic brand.
Assemblymember Chad Mayes of Yucca Valley, a former leader of the Assembly Republican caucus who later left the party because of Trump, said GOP candidates who are distancing themselves from the former president without fully denouncing his attacks on the 2020 election are displaying political cowardice, not courage. Many of them reject Trumpism in private, he said, but won’t go that far in public because they fear losing conservative voters.
“It’s not enough to be quiet. Republicans have to outright reject that behavior,” Mayes said. “You’re playing politics with the fundamentals of our democracy.”
During the recall election against Gov. Gavin Newsom last year, conservative talk radio host Larry Elder galvanized Republican voters by railing against the governor’s coronavirus mandates and other liberal policies in the state. Then Newsom successfully flipped the approach on Elder, hammering him in ads and at campaign events as “the most Trump of the candidates” and “even more extreme than Trump.” Newsom ultimately defeated the recall by nearly the same massive margin as he won the governorship in 2018; Elder passed on a rematch this year.
Newsom seems eager to replicate the strategy. On a Zoom call with campaign volunteers Tuesday, he accused Brian Dahle, who received the Republican Party endorsement for governor and is his most likely challenger this fall, of supporting the Jan. 6 attack and refusing to publicly acknowledge that Biden won the presidency.
“This guy is Trump through and through,” Newsom said.
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A state senator and seed farmer from rural Northern California, Dahle once spoke at a Trump rally in Redding in June 2016, declaring the region “Trump country.” This campaign, he is much more circumspect.
Dahle has politely expressed that he would support Trump if he is the Republican nominee for president again in 2024 and then quickly shifted to a critique of Newsom’s record. He has heavily touted his bipartisan credentials, telling CalMatters that he would be a better partner to Democratic lawmakers at the Capitol than Newsom has been.
Dahle shrugged off Newsom’s criticisms Tuesday, slamming the governor for trying to “distract, deflect, deny” as “every civic institution in California crumbles.” In a statement, he said there was an active investigation into Jan. 6 and “people who violated the law should be prosecuted, those who were exercising their free speech rights should be protected.”
But he notably did not affirm the 2020 election results, even after CalMatters pushed his team to clarify Dahle’s position on Trump’s conspiracy theory about widespread voting fraud. In a TV interview a day later, he said: “Joe Biden is our president, no doubt.”
Jenny Rae Le Roux, a Republican business owner who has raised more money than any candidate running against Newsom other than Dahle, does not appear to have made any public statements about Trump, though she recently announced that his former political director, Chris Carr, would serve as a senior adviser to her campaign.
Republicans in California can afford to be less deferential because the state is largely off Trump’s radar. He has endorsed in more than 140 races this year, according to the election tracking website Ballotpedia, but none in California.
So while the U.S. Senate campaign in Ohio, for example, has devolved into a slugfest over Trump’s endorsement, there is more room in California for a candidate like Shawn Collins, a Navy veteran and lawyer who finished third in the state party gubernatorial endorsement vote, ahead of Le Roux.
Collins told CalMatters that he did not vote for Trump — or Biden, whom he confirmed is the “legitimately elected president” — in 2020.
In an interview earlier this month, Collins said he “loved a lot of the things that Donald Trump was doing,” including signing a bill to reduce some federal criminal sentences that “was one of the most significant pieces of legislation for Black and brown people since the Civil Rights Act.” But he said Trump’s messaging on issues such as election fraud undermined his accomplishments and made it difficult to mark his name on the ballot.
“I left it blank,” Collins said. “I was just torn on it.”
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Collins, who is Black, said he is running for governor to build a bigger tent for the Republican Party, with a message of family values, faith and fiscal conservatism that he believes will appeal to minority communities. He said he was most frustrated that the “California GOP has kind of hitched its wagon to the national message” at the expense of offering solutions to problems more relevant to Californians’ lives. Arguments over voter fraud, he added, are discouraging the conservative base from turning out for elections.
“We need to create our own brand of the GOP out here in California,” he said. “We’re not doing a very good job of offering an alternative.”
Republicans’ best shot at statewide office this year may be Lanhee Chen, who is running for controller pledging to act as an independent fiscal watchdog for the state and who has raised more money than any other Republican statewide candidate. A former political adviser to 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney, Chen has repeatedly declined to say whether he voted for Trump, including during an interview this month with CalMatters.
Chen condemned what happened on Jan. 6 as an “abomination” and an “attack on democracy,” said those involved “should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” and declared that Biden was “legitimately elected as the president of the United States. I don’t have any question or qualm about that.”
Still, he dodged several direct questions about his support for Trump, emphasizing his “capacity for independent thought” from his party. “I didn’t serve in his administration. I was not asked, nor did I seek to serve in this administration,” Chen said. “There is a[n] overwhelming interest in looking backwards rather than forwards. And I think the future of the state will not be defined by former President Trump.”
Despite that, Chen was warmly received at the state party convention. His candidate booth saw a constant flurry of activity throughout the weekend, which ended with delegates endorsing his candidacy.
Party activists also backed Nathan Hochman, a former federal prosecutor who identifies with the “hard middle” of the political spectrum, over Eric Early, a vocal Trump supporter who vows to investigate California elections, in the race for attorney general.
Conservatives hope that rising anxiety over crime could sweep Democratic incumbent Rob Bonta out of office, and Hochman has played his campaign extremely cautiously in a bid for crossover appeal, refusing to take a position on numerous controversial issues.
He, too, repeatedly declined to answer questions about whether he voted for Trump in an interview with CalMatters this month. Hochman said voter privacy is “one of your sacred fundamental rights” and whether he supported the former president did not matter because it would not affect how we would enforce the law as attorney general.
“When people use Trump…Trump is a placeholder for a series of actions, policies, and statements,” Hochman said. “Trump’s not on the ballot.”
CalMatters reporter Sameea Kamal contributed to this story.