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Thanks a lot, Indiana: Here’s what California Republicans could have had

Republicans at the party's California convention last week in Burlingame.

Republicans at the party’s California convention last week in Burlingame.

(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

You can’t say it doesn’t sting. California’s role as the closing prize of the primary campaign season has been sundered by little Indiana, where a sweeping victory handed the title “presumptive Republican nominee” to Donald Trump.

Gone are visions of GOP candidates chowing down at In-N-Out, walking the beach in their oxfords, pretending to understand the innards of high-tech inventions in Silicon Valley, gaping at cow herds in the Central Valley and braving the wind-swept cultural wilds of the City by the Bay.

All that, along with the enticing possibility of the first decisive GOP presidential contest here in half a century, was wiped out because of voters in a state California outnumbers by more than 32 million people.

Yes, California will still have the Democratic primary, but that has more value for its bragging rights and convention leverage than for its effect on the Democratic nomination, which is pretty much in Hillary Clinton’s pocket.

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The intensity of the Democratic campaign here is in question. Challenger Bernie Sanders is navigating how to maximize his impact on the party going forward, and likely nominee Clinton is taking on Trump and raising money for the general election. She will be in California on Thursday and Friday for fundraisers and events; Sanders has not yet announced plans to campaign in the state.

In short, that whoosh that could be heard from Tuesday into Wednesday was the California political ecosystem exhaling, a bit sadly.

“The great dream of a California competitive race is gone, and today was a very depressed world,” said a gently sardonic Bill Carrick, a Democratic strategist who hasn’t seen a fully competitive primary here since he arrived a generation ago. “There’s a little bit of, ‘Oh, we didn’t happen after all.’”

Yet the absence of something can also have an impact.

Among Republicans involved in June primary campaigns, calculations of voter turnout based on a contest that would determine whether Trump avoided an open convention were being hastily redone. Turnout is highly important to GOP candidates because without it they are doomed in much of California; the expectation until Tuesday had been that their voters would swamp Democrats at the June 7 ballot box.

The state’s top-two system — the two candidates with the most votes face off in November, regardless of party — is now a prime concern.

Harmeet Dhillon, a state Republican Party leader, said that the effective cancellation of a competitive primary could harm Republicans in top-two races across the state. GOP operatives had been saying all morning, she added: “Oh, my God, my turnout model just went straight to hell.”

“Lower turnout is harmful,” she said. “We can only hope Bernie Sanders drops out so Democratic turnout is suppressed as well.”

The U.S. Senate seat on the June ballot is among the races in which the absence of a contested GOP primary could hurt Republicans.

The top two candidates, according to polls, are California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris and U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez of Orange, both Democrats. It was always a long shot for one of the three somewhat known Republicans — former state party Chairmen Duf Sundheim and Tom Del Beccaro, and former gubernatorial candidate Ron Unz — to unify the party and knock out Sanchez for the second slot. Now the long shot is dramatically longer.

But not everyone sees a huge Republican drop-off. Dan Newman, a Democratic strategist whose firm is working for Harris, suggested both sides could see a small one, if that.

“As impossible as it seems, I actually think we’ll be talking about Trump even more than before now that the unthinkable is reality,” Newman said. “He still actually inspires people to vote both for him and against him, and he gets people riled up like no one else does.”

Even a Democratic primary that will not be determinative could drive a big turnout. Will Clinton’s forces go all out to give her a final victorious day heading into the convention? Will Sanders’ boisterous army of supporters give him another dramatic win with which to boost his influence over the party’s direction?

Ben Tulchin, Sanders’ campaign pollster, suggested that without Trump dominating attention and driving voters, the Vermont senator’s ability to attract younger voters “is now even more relevant.”

That is particularly true among independents, who can vote in California’s open Democratic primary. Once at the ballot box, those voters presumably will stick around to pull the electorate left in top-two races and local campaigns.

The challenge for Democrats will be to keep those voters around for the November election, particularly if their preferred candidate doesn’t win the nomination. The challenge for Republicans, however, will be more difficult.

In his campaign so far, Trump has offended women, who make up the majority of the state’s voters, and Latinos and Asians, California’s swiftly growing demographic groups. Every California election in which immigration has been a key element has seen a big turnout among minority voters. Not all of them, as with women, vote Democratic, but most of them do.

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Trump likely won’t campaign through the fall in this strongly Democratic state, but his message — and the “build the wall!” chants of his supporters — will reach California. The result, Democrats and Republicans agree, will be an attempt by the state’s voters to repudiate him in November.

“A lot of Republican candidates are going to need to put on their running shoes, because they need to run as far away from Donald Trump as possible,” said GOP strategist Kevin Spillane.

He, too, was boggled at how swiftly things had changed.

“In a week,” he said, “we went from being a decisive primary to completely irrelevant.”

Twitter: @cathleendecker; @LATSeema

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