A new year and a new Republican candidate have cracked open California's sleepy race for governor, unleashing predictions of a splintered GOP vote that could sink Republicans and lead to a November election between two Democrats.
Former Northern California Rep. Doug Ose jumped into the race Friday, becoming the third major GOP candidate in an already crowded field. His decision comes as front-runner Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom faces an uptick in attacks by the Republicans, who see him as the Democrat headed for the November ballot and hope to paint him as a liberal bogeyman to lure more GOP voters to the polls in the June primary.
But while the Republicans focus their ire on Newsom, Ose's entry into the race could scramble the chances of GOP voters uniting behind one candidate, which some argue would benefit Newsom's chief Democratic rival, Antonio Villaraigosa. The former mayor of Los Angeles trails Newsom in the polls but is far ahead of the rest of the field. He only has to finish second in June to advance to the November election.
Republicans already find themselves at a major disadvantage in voter registration, trailing Democrats by nearly 19 percentage points, giving the candidates a smaller pie to split. The party could risk an outcome it has seen before: In California's 2016 race for U.S. Senate, no one in the crowded field of Republican candidates was able to consolidate the GOP base. As a result, Democrats Kamala Harris and Loretta Sanchez topped the vote in the June primary and, under the state's top-two primary system, moved on to the November election.
"I think Doug Ose's heart is in the right place … but he further dilutes the field," said Bill Whalen, a fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution who was a speechwriter for former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson. "If all the Republicans stay in, it's mutually assured destruction."
Ose, who was a major cheerleader for Donald Trump's presidential campaign, expressed little concern. He said he's heard little about the best-known Republicans in the race: Rancho Santa Fe businessman John Cox and Huntington Beach Assemblyman Travis Allen.
"I guess the other two will have to get out," Ose told The Times. "I happen to think people are going to respond very positively to my efforts to rebuild the California dream."
A wealthy real estate developer, Ose represented the Sacramento area in Congress from 1999 to 2005. Like his GOP rivals in the race, he is quick to criticize Gov. Jerry Brown and other Sacramento Democrats, saying they have left the state choked by traffic and crumbling roads, poorly performing schools and unaffordable housing.
"Ose is testing the waters, and he's going to hear from a lot of people that having a third Republican in the race is a really bad idea in a top-two system," Cox campaign spokesman Matt Shupe said in a statement released Friday. "Everyone is going to say, 'Why didn't he do this a year ago?' "
Cox, who has contributed $3 million to his own campaign, is launching a radio ad Monday that takes an unflinching shot at Newsom, the latest GOP effort to nick up the Democrat.
"For years, the Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom Democrats have been socking it to middle-class taxpayers and small-business owners. Fueled by the corrupting influence of special interest money, the Sacramento politicians have saddled us with among the highest income, sales and gas taxes in the country," Cox says in the 60-second ad, which will air statewide.
At a GOP debate sponsored by the Redlands Tea Party Patriots on Thursday night, one of the few points of agreement between Cox and Allen was their distaste for Newsom. Allen described the former San Francisco mayor as left of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Cox described him as a pandering "shape-shifter."
On Friday, Newsom headed to the Inland Empire, where he dropped by a union hall in Riverside. His campaign staff collected the contact information of state party delegates, part of an effort to win the California Democratic Party's endorsement at its February convention. After brief remarks, he took several questions from the audience. When his staff repeatedly tried to call for the final question, Newsom kept talking.
"I'm trying to suck up," he said.
Villaraigosa has been targeting the Inland Empire heavily in his gubernatorial bid. It's the region where he draws the greatest support, faring much better than Newsom and the other top Democrats in the race, state Treasurer John Chiang and former state schools chief Delaine Eastin, according to a recent USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll.
Once GOP strongholds, Riverside and San Bernardino counties have been moving to the left in recent years. Democrats now have an edge in voter registration in both inland counties, and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton carried the region in the 2016 election.
The Republicans are facing other uncomfortable truths. No GOP candidate has won a statewide election in California since 2006.
And there's the Trump factor. Ose and Allen are ardent supporters of the president. Cox voted for Libertarian Gary Johnson in the November election, but says that was a mistake and that he now backs Trump "100%."
Support for Trump could help the candidates' chances in the June primary, when they need all the Republican votes they can muster. But the GOP hopefuls may face consequences for aligning with the president if one of them makes it to the November ballot: In California, Clinton trounced Trump in the 2016 election, beating him by more than 4.2 million votes.