California Republicans feud over party direction ahead of high-stakes recall

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California Governor Gavin Newsom cannot directly face off against the replacement candidates, which gives Republicans hopes of taking the top office with a plurality should voters oust the Democratic governor on a separate ballot question. | Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

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OAKLAND — California Republicans finally have the Gov. Gavin Newsom recall election they've dreamed about, but an emerging dilemma could divide their ranks: whether to endorse one candidate.

Conservative activists charge that party leaders, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and state GOP chair Jessica Millan Patterson, are maneuvering to direct party support toward former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who leads in polls and outside fundraising.

Never mind that Democrats love to circulate an Oval Office photo of Faulconer and former President Donald Trump. Conservatives say Faulconer is too moderate — and that party insiders are trying to co-opt the recall energy stemming from the base. Putting the party's weight behind Faulconer, they argue, would dampen Republican turnout and help Newsom survive the recall.

“The only difference between Gavin Newsom and Kevin Faulconer is that Faulconer doesn’t use gel on his hair,” said Steve Frank, a longtime California conservative leader who unsuccessfully challenged Millan Patterson to lead the party last year.

Democrats have unprecedented control over California government, and no Republican has won a governor's race since Arnold Schwarzenegger's re-election 15 years ago. The party’s withering voter rolls — now down to 24 percent — have revealed consistent problems over the years.

Even in Schwarzenegger's time, the party was beset with internal strife between its conservative rank-and-file and state leaders who believed the path forward was to soften views on social issues and appeal to an ever more diverse California electorate.

Faulconer and his backers say that if ever there was a time to coalesce around a single candidate, it would be during the upcoming recall when Republicans may have their best chance to reclaim the governor's office. Newsom cannot directly face off against the replacement candidates, which gives Republicans hopes of taking the top office with a plurality should voters oust the Democratic governor on a separate ballot question.

“I believe that it's important for the party to get behind a candidate, and to have a process to do so,” Faulconer said.

With more than 80 candidates expressing interest — 35 of them Republicans — a coveted endorsement from the party could be a major boost, particularly for one of the leading contenders. Faulconer, businessman John Cox, former Rep. Doug Ose and reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner have been trying to gain traction for months, and they were joined Monday by state Assemblymember Kevin Kiley (R-Rocklin), a vocal Newsom critic.

The state party’s executive committee is preparing to meet July 24 to vote on the bylaws and process that would pave the way for an endorsement, which all California Republican delegates likely would vote on sometime in August.

“Chairwoman Patterson remains committed to a fair endorsement process that actively engages candidates and campaigns and allows all delegates to participate and offer a potential endorsement from the California Republican Party,” Ellie Hockenbury, a CRP spokesperson, said in a statement.

But grassroots activists whose support was crucial for qualifying the recall say they will fight any California Republican Party move on that front — aiming to deny Faulconer the 60 percent of delegate support he’d need to snag such an endorsement.

California political experts say the party's fierce debate underscores how internal divisions may exacerbate the already massive logistical and political challenges ahead now that the recall has been calendared.

“The very fight over this lays bare the battle within the California GOP,” said Sonoma State political science professor David McCuan. “[The party] eats their young, while remaining irrelevant to most state voters,” he said, while showing “an inherent lack of flexibility in adapting to the state’s changing demands.”

Frank insisted that party leaders' move to start an endorsement process violates the state GOP bylaws. And he argued a Faulconer endorsement would “demolish what’s left of the California Republican Party” by appearing to disrespect the views of the conservative grassroots, many of whom view Faulconer as a “RINO,” or “Republican in name only.”

Ose, who served in Congress from 1999-2005, said it already appears that an endorsement is in the bag for the former San Diego mayor.

“The Faulconer camp continues to push this forward, and many of the people who work for Faulconer are in the party at high levels. And they keep maneuvering,” he said, calling the move “disrespectful of the grassroots folks.”

Critics said that an endorsement would undermine the party’s main responsibility in the recall — to increase GOP participation and convince voters to choose “yes” on the first ballot question: “Should Gov. Gavin Newsom be recalled?” They said unless Republicans can rev up enough widespread support to win that first question, the rest is moot — and an endorsement will only alienate many conservatives who helped qualify the recall in the first place.

“It is gross political malpractice and negligence for any CRP board member, elected official or paid consultant to try to anoint a Republican candidate in the upcoming recall — particularly one with an atrocious record like Kevin Faulconer,” said Carl DeMaio, a conservative talk show host and former San Diego City Council member who has feuded with Faulconer for years. “It will ultimately lay the groundwork for the failure of the recall, because it will demoralize the base by having insiders try to cram an establishment Democrat-leaning candidate down our throats.”

But former party chair Ron Nehring, an adviser to Faulconer’s campaign, noted the party in 2003 officially backed Schwarzenegger.

“Political parties nominate candidates in elections. That's what they do,” he argued. “And Kevin Faulconer has earned the support of the Republican Party every single time that he's run for office — three times for city council, and twice for mayor.”

With voters set to receive their mail-in ballots in mid-August, McCuan said endorsing a single candidate is “the only move” it should make to counter Newsom’s incumbency, fundraising dominance and powerful bully pulpit.

Otherwise, “the party guarantees slicing and dicing itself into single-digit candidate irrelevance,’’ he said. “The California GOP is a multi-headed hydra … and not endorsing a single candidate ensures a lack of focus — and a lock for Newsom.”

Recall organizers did not seem concerned by the internal party feud. Orrin Heatlie, who launched the recall in early 2020, said this latest debate may be just evidence of the passion that the recall has kicked up among Republicans. “The people are going to vote their conscience, they're going to vote from their heart,” he said. “Some people will be swayed, one way or another, but I really don't think it's all that consequential.”

Tom Del Beccaro — the founder of a separate RescueCalifornia.org effort supporting the recall — said as far as the movement is concerned, the more candidates, the merrier. He says there’s no need for Republicans to battle each other when Newsom is the real target. “We at RescueCalifornia.org fully expect more people to get in the race,’’ he says, “and each brings a constituency that will solidify the polls demonstrating that recall will succeed.”

The gubernatorial field remains fluid, as prospective candidates for California governor have until July 16 to collect 65-100 valid nomination signatures and pay a $4,194.94 filing fee, or they can submit 7,000 valid signatures instead. They must also submit five years worth of tax returns, the California Secretary of State’s Office has determined.

The final list of qualified candidates will be published on July 21 — four days before the party’s executive committee meets to explore the endorsement process.

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