Column: Republican Dahle is likable, level-headed and highly respected. But he won’t win California governor
The first thing to know about the Republican candidate for California governor is that he’s a good guy, not a jerk or a crackpot.
You could confidently vote for state Sen. Brian Dahle and smile — not feel the urge to throw up.
A seed farmer from the tiny Lassen County town of Bieber in the mountainous northeast, Dahle, 57, is likeable, level-headed and highly respected by colleagues of both parties. He’s a fighter, but not a ranting demagogue.
“He’s not crazy, which in 2022 puts him ahead of a bunch of other Republicans,” says Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College.
Pitney is a former Republican National Committee official who registered as an independent the night Donald Trump was elected president in 2016.
OK, but merely being a nice guy rather than a rude wacko is a pretty low bar. It isn’t enough to qualify someone to govern the nation’s most populous state with the world’s fifth-largest economy.
So, the second thing to know about Dahle is that he could handle the job.
Unlike other Republican gubernatorial finalists in the last quarter century, this one has actually held elective offices, and held them well. He served 17 years as a county supervisor, then more than six in the state Assembly, where he was minority leader, and now is in his fourth year as senator.
He knows the ins and outs of government and has immersed himself in the details of complex public policy, especially water. No training wheels would be needed.
“Republicans have been waiting for a magic candidate to show up and save them, instead of doing the basic work necessary to rebuild the party,” says Dan Schnur, a former GOP operative who teaches political communications at USC and UC Berkeley. “That is not a viable political strategy.”
“Dahle’s probably not going to win,” Schnur adds, “but maybe he represents the first step the party needs to take to get out of their deep hole. They’re not going to get out of it overnight.”
That brings up the third thing to know about Dahle, and virtually everyone already knows it: There is no conceivable way he can win.
Dahle is a conservative who’s the wrong political fit for this liberal state.
Democratic voters outnumber Republicans nearly 2 to 1. And independent voters lean Democratic.
A September poll by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California showed Gov. Gavin Newsom leading Dahle among likely voters by a landslide margin, 58% to 31%.
Because Dahle is seen as sure to lose — as any plausible GOP gubernatorial candidate would be in this state — he can’t attract many campaign investors. At last count, he had raised a paltry $2.2 million and had only $409,000 in cash. That’s not enough for TV ads, a must in this sprawling state.
“His war chest would be great if he were running for the state Assembly,” Pitney says.
By contrast, Newsom has more than $23 million stashed and, unlike Dahle, hasn’t even bothered to seriously campaign.
One place where Dahle does fit well politically is his far-flung legislative district, which stretches from the Oregon border down through the northern Sierra to south of Lake Tahoe — 11 counties in all. His wife, Republican Assemblywoman Megan Dahle, represents many of the same counties in the lower house.
While Newsom easily beat back a Republican recall effort last year, most counties in Dahle’s district voted heavily to oust the Democratic governor. And although President Biden won by a landslide statewide in 2020, most of Dahle’s counties supported Trump — Lassen did with 75% of the vote.
“This is a tough race,” Republican state Sen. Brian Dahle said about his decision to challenge Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom.
I asked Dahle whether he believes Biden won the national election legitimately. “Yes,” he instantly replied.
So, Dahle doesn’t buy Trump’s Big Lie. But he wouldn’t acknowledge that to other Times reporters during the primary election when he was trying to become the No. 1 Republican choice for governor.
Dahle told me he voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020. But he wouldn’t answer whether the former president should run again in 2024. Still, I don’t expect to see him wearing a MAGA cap.
“I’m focused on California,” he says.
In a phone interview, I asked him about this state. These are some of his answers:
How could a Republican governor achieve anything with a supermajority Democratic Legislature? Democrats would need to compromise with him on spending, Dahle says. He could veto their budget and lots of other bills.
But Dahle points out he has always worked with Democrats, especially on water.
He says the state needs to build more reservoirs and also focus on desalination. He doesn’t support the proposed tunnel for the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
Wildfires? Vegetation management must be fast-tracked. “Our watersheds are burning up,” he says.
The bullet train? “I hate the thing. It’s never going to work as sold to the public.” He wants to pour rail money into water storage.
Energy? “We need to build transmission lines and power plants. And there’s lots of opportunity for geothermal.”
Oil? He thinks we should drill more in California — and more cleanly — to import less from South America “where they’re bulldozing rainforests.”
Homelessness? The emphasis should be on treating addiction and drying up illegal drug supplies. Our “housing first” policy is a failure, he says. “Most homeless people don’t want to go into shelters because it’s not safe.”
Abortion? “I’m pro-life…. We need a conversation about what’s reasonable.”
Guns? “I respect the 2nd Amendment. My biggest thing is getting firearms out of felons’ hands — not going after law-abiding gun owners.”
“He’s pretty much an old-school Republican,” Pitney says. “Maybe not someone who has a serious shot at statewide office, but at the same time he’s not an embarrassment, either.”
That’s a good start for the California GOP.
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