California Republicans see ray of hope in Democratic bastion
HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. (AP) — Here’s something rarely heard after a California election: Republicans had a pretty good night.
The state’s long-suffering GOP advanced businessman John Cox to the November governor’s race, engineered the recall of a Democratic state senator and held its ground, at least for now, in a string of contested congressional races that could figure in the fight for control of the House.
But the party’s prospects for November are still dicey. The ascendant days of the Reagan revolution are long gone in California. Republicans don’t hold a single statewide office and are largely spectators in a Legislature dominated by Democrats.
Still, Tuesday’s primary offered a rare jolt of encouragement for a party more accustomed to seeing its candidates vanquished. After years of decline, Republicans account for an anemic 1 in 4 voters in California. They’re now outnumbered even by independents.
Cox’s second-place finish putting him on the November ballot against Democrat Gavin Newsom was an important tactical win. It’s expected to drive up Republican turnout that could benefit candidates in tough races for Congress and the Legislature.
Meanwhile, the broad outline of the party’s message is taking shape. The GOP wants to saddle Democrats who run the state with responsibility for rising crime rates, growing income inequality, high taxes and immigration problems.
“They bought it, they own it,” state Republican Party Chairman Jim Brulte said.
Republicans have been in a tailspin for years in California, where a diversifying population has grown increasingly Democratic in its leanings. The party cedes a 3.6-million voter-registration edge to Democrats.
Cox enters the race a long shot and hitched to President Donald Trump, who is widely unpopular in California. And for the second consecutive election, there will be no Republican on the U.S. Senate ballot in the fall, after Sen. Dianne Feinstein and state Sen. Kevin de Leon, both Democrats, advanced.
“Republicans won some talking points, but in the long run Democrats retain a big advantage in California,” said political scientist Jack Pitney, who teaches at Claremont McKenna College. “It’s kind of sad when they tout it as a victory just to get a candidate on the November ballot.”
National attention is focused on a string of GOP-held House districts carried by Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race. Those districts could determine who runs the chamber.
There was speculation that Republicans in some of those districts might block Democrats from the fall ballot, which is open to the two top vote-getters regardless of party. But that appeared unlikely, with some ballots still uncounted.
“We would have loved to have had a couple of all-Republican finals. We didn’t quite get there,” Republican Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma said after GOP lawmakers got an overview of Tuesday’s results on Capitol Hill.
“The fact that the Democrats had to spend a lot of money out there to try and get their preferred results, the internal tension that’s causing in the Democratic base in California, all those things are pretty good news for us,” Cole said.
There were other glimmers of hope, even though all but one statewide race was topped by a Democrat. The exception was former state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, a former Republican running as an independent for his old job.
In the fight for the House, the results were encouraging for Republican Reps. Mimi Walters and Steve Knight, who each topped 50 percent against multiple challengers in their Southern California districts.
The outlook was more challenging for Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican whose name has come up in the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. He notched about 30 percent in a large field, though the second-place finisher remained unclear.
Democrats saw it differently.
It’s “clear that Democrats are in a stronger position than ever to take back the House, and winning districts in California will be central to that path,” Tyler Law, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in a statement.
Not since 1988 has a Republican candidate carried the state in a presidential election, George H.W. Bush. The last Republican elected to statewide office was in 2006.
“They know who we are, and they don’t like us,” former state Republican Party Chairman Duf Sundheim lamented in 2010, after Democrats made a clean sweep of eight statewide contests.
Meanwhile, a Republican-backed effort to repeal a state gas-tax increase is likely to be on the November ballot, which party leaders hope will draw voters to the polls. The party celebrated when Democratic state Sen. Josh Newman was recalled by voters Tuesday and replaced by a Republican.
Julie Husting, a 53-year-old retired accountant from Huntington Beach, said she’s a Republican and voted for Cox. But she isn’t sure if he has a chance in the fall.
“It’s hard to say, because California is a Democratic state,” she said, before adding, “But we can try.”
Associated Press writers Kevin Freking in Washington and Amy Taxin in Huntington Beach, California, contributed.