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Distancing itself from Trump's toxicity could be the California GOP's salvation

Distancing itself from Trump's toxicity could be the California GOP's salvation
Sandy Stultz sports her Republican fashion during the California Republican Convention, in Burlingame, Calif., on April 30. (Los Angeles Times)

For the Republican Party nationally, presumptive nominee Donald Trump is the political version of Chernobyl. His toxic association with its brand over the next several months will make its corner of the political landscape uninhabitable for large portions of the electorate for years to come.

But for California Republicans, Trump's doomed and divisive candidacy could actually represent an opportunity to get back on the path to political relevancy in this deep-blue state. GOP leaders would have to support the #NeverTrump movement and put forward a more traditional Republican as an independent candidate for president. They wouldn't even need to get him or her on the ballot everywhere, just in California.

To be clear, a non-Trump Republican has no chance whatsoever of carrying California. Hillary Clinton is going to take this state no matter what. But running a pro-trade, pro-immigration option would allow the state party to both distance itself from Trump and send a more accommodating and internationalist message to voters who have not seriously considered a Republican for statewide office in a decade or more.

Such a candidate would be much more consistent with the views of California Republicans on the policy matters that make Trump unacceptable to so many voters. According to last month's USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times statewide political poll, two-thirds of state Republicans oppose the deportation of undocumented immigrants and roughly 40% support a pathway to citizenship. While Californians overall have turned against expanded international trade opportunities, support for free trade registers much higher among the higher-income and college-educated voters who once comprised the GOP base and who are most hostile to Trump's candidacy.

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There are certainly obstacles to a Republican comeback in California — the party's opposition to abortion rights, marriage equality and gun control just to name a few. But as Democrats face a stronger anti-trade push from their ranks, as well as looming intra-party fights on education, taxes and criminal justice reform, there are significant benefits for a Republican Party that establishes itself as a strong globalist voice in a state whose economy and culture rely on forging and strengthening international relationships between governments, businesses and families.

For California Republicans, Trump's doomed candidacy could actually represent an opportunity to get back on the path to political relevancy in this deep-blue state.


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More immediately and more practically, a third choice on the ballot provides a safe harbor for Republican candidates to avoid a public decision between Trump and Clinton. It also provides a refuge for voters of all partisan affiliations who don't like either candidate and consider themselves centrists.

With a competitive level of financial backing, the California GOP's handpicked independent candidate could finish second to Clinton here, well ahead of Trump. If a mainstream Republican did accomplish such a feat, GOP leaders would be in a strong position to argue that they had repudiated Trump's alienating brand of isolationism, intolerance and identity politics.

The logistics of qualifying an independent candidate in California are formidable.

State law requires a petition to be submitted with signatures equaling at least 1% of the total number of registered voters in the state at the time of the last general election. That's roughly 180,000 signatures. The petitions must be submitted 88 days before the election, or by the second week of August. Collecting so many signatures in such a short amount time would be expensive, but certainly not prohibitively so for deep-pocketed Republicans who want to see their party survive a Trump-induced bloodbath.

Already, GOP donors in other states are moving their money into campaigns for the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives in an effort to protect those majorities. A similar investment to protect their party's future here seems like a wise long-term decision.

Trump will almost certainly lose this election by historic margins, and the outcome in heavily Democratic California is likely to be even more lopsided. The question for Republicans here is whether they want to use this impending landslide to their strategic advantage — or to be buried by it.

Dan Schnur is the Director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. He is a former Republican consultant who is now registered as a No Party Preference voter.

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