Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is heading into hostile territory this weekend, making a campaign-like swing through California as he seeks to peel off donors and voters from former President Donald Trump in a deep blue state that could be an unusually powerful factor in next year’s Republican primary.
It’s an awkward stop for the California-bashing DeSantis, made more so by a fresh round of taunting Friday from Gov. Gavin Newsom.
“You’re going to get smoked by Trump,” Newsom said in a statement issued ahead of a planned speech by DeSantis at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
The tenor of Newsom’s statement is likely a preview of what could end up as an ugly fight if, as expected, DeSantis tries to wrest the mantle of the GOP away from Trump — with California and its 5.2 million Republican voters representing a major battleground.
A March 2024 vote and an open GOP field offer California’s beleaguered conservatives a chance to step off the statewide sidelines and into the fray of a national fight.
“I don’t remember the last time we mattered,” said Carl DeMaio, a Republican activist and former San Diego council member. “It’s an immense opportunity.”
The contours are already taking shape. DeSantis will be in California over the weekend to speak at the Reagan Presidential library and then collect cash, both opportunities to make inroads with the state’s GOP base. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former Vice President Mike Pence have both stopped by the Reagan library — an indispensable proving ground for Republican hopefuls — in recent months. None of them have officially entered the 2024 presidential race but all are expected to.
Lanhee Chen, who ran for state controller in 2022 and has worked for multiple GOP presidential candidates, recounted a Republican campaign official recently seeking his input on how to navigate California’s sprawling geography and media markets.
“California is a different beast,” Chen said. “A lot of the campaigns are trying to wrap their heads around how they should think about it.”
It could feel like a sea change for California Republicans, who have been locked out of statewide office for a generation and are outnumbered two-to-one by registered Democrats. National Republicans swing through California’s red precincts to vacuum up dollars but rarely do any actual campaigning. This cycle could be different.
“There are lots of opportunities for each of these candidates to rack up delegates in California,” said California Republican Party Chair Jessica Millan Patterson, “and I think you’re going to see them coming through the state, not just to raise money but to meet people, get the vote out and make their case.”
By the time the 2016 GOP nominating contest rolled into California, former President Donald Trump had already vanquished his rivals. In early 2023, polling gives DeSantis a substantial lead over the former president. Republican candidates seeking an edge could be compelled to campaign and advertise in a solidly blue state, and not just in the typical conservative strongholds: Delegates will be available deep in the belly of the beast.
“I don’t think Republican voters are even cognizant that this is coming, because it’s just never happened before,” said Matt Shupe, a Republican political consultant. “I’ve been pretty fired up talking about this because this is going to affect the party, from the lowest levels to the highest levels, until March.”
Part of the calculus will involve California’s decentralized nominating process. Most of the state’s delegates are allocated by House district, with the top vote-getter in each district receiving three. California Republican Party officials intentionally made the change many cycles ago to open up a statewide formula that had helped catapult favorite son Ronald Reagan into the White House.
“When we were changing the party rules back in the year 2000, hoping that we might someday play a role like this — it’s certainly surreal that day has arrived,” said Jon Fleischman, who was the party’s executive director at the time. “It only took 23 years.”
That means candidates have 52 separate chances — one for each congressional seat — to pick up votes. Winning a solidly red San Diego seat will be just as valuable as carrying a plurality of San Francisco’s 29,000 Republicans.
“It creates a dynamic where a candidate could say ‘you know what, I’m going to campaign in the Central Valley and hire grassroots people in the Central Valley and just do that,’” Fleischman said.
Republican voters in California run the gamut from Orange County denizens with beachfront views to residents of northern rural counties who hope to create their own state. But Chen said the Republicans he interacted with on the trail had similar views to Republicans in other states. He said he observed bigger contrasts within California.
California Republicans have resoundingly supported Trump, voting for him in record numbers. Supporting him was a prerequisite for leadership in the state party.
But that support is wavering. A recent statewide poll found DeSantis bested Trump by double digits in a head-to-head matchup and scored markedly higher favorability ratings. Republicans around the state described a fluid situation in which some voters unflinchingly back Trump, others are ready to move on, and many are still weighing their options as the field develops.
“It varies so widely. Some people still love Trump and he’s the only one, and a lot of other people are like: ‘absolutely not, DeSantis is our person,’” said Fresno County Republican Party Chair Elizabeth Kolstad.
State Sen. Melissa Melendez was a steadfast Trump supporter who traveled to the White House to discuss immigration in 2018 and represents the Republican stronghold of Riverside County. In a recent interview, Melendez declined to commit to Trump. “Some people have their favorites already decided, but a lot of it is going to come down to what their policies are,” Melendez said, citing stances on China and immigration.
The donor class is also unlikely to unite behind the former president. Gerald Marcil, a fixture of the California Republican donor circuit, said he admired Trump’s record and voted for his re-election. But he is not backing Trump this time around. He likes DeSantis, an impression that was solidified after dining together.
“I think we have to go with Ron DeSantis on this one,” Marcil said, adding he feared a crowded field would hand the nomination to Trump because he begins with an unwavering base. “We’ve got to coalesce and get down to one or two other possibilities.”
Similarly, Orrin Heatlie — a core organizer of the failed 2021 effort to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom — said the grassroots Republicans he speaks with are “swinging heavily towards Ron DeSantis.”
“He has a clear message and basically aligns with their beliefs and their politics,” Heatlie said. “I think Donald Trump is a distraction.”
Some Republicans are balancing genuine admiration for Trump with other political considerations. Republican Assemblymember Devon Mathis, who is vociferously advocating for former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, said he believed Trump had done a good job but wanted someone who could serve out two terms. Mathis also warned of the down-ballot ripples.
“A lot of people want to stay loyal to the former president, and there’s a lot of people who feel like he got robbed,” Mathis said, but “as much as some people don’t like to admit it, Trump was pretty toxic for our delegation. Every single ad was tying Republicans to Trump, in every target seat in California.”
Despite those reservations, the former president is still a formidable candidate who can count on a solid foundation. Republicans are quick to point out how swiftly the contest could change.
“DeSantis starts with an advantage because he’s more well known,” Fleischman said. “But if our governor starts picking his fights with Trump instead of picking his fights with DeSantis, maybe that changes.”
Lara Korte contributed to this report.
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