The California Republican Party did not agree on an endorsement Sunday in the governor’s race, a development that could stifle the chances that GOP voters will coalesce behind a candidate before the June 5 primary election.
Businessman John Cox received 55.3% of the vote, short of the 60% required for the party nod. Assemblyman Travis Allen received 40.5%, while 4.1% voted for no endorsement at the party’s convention in San Diego.
The lack of a party endorsement in the gubernatorial contest could have significant political ramifications. Cox and Allen are not well known to California voters, and backing from the party stood to provide a powerful signal to undecided voters. If voters split between the two men, the state GOP risks a repeat of the 2016 U.S. Senate contest, when no Republican advanced to the general election, leaving voters with a choice between two Democrats on the November ballot.
But the stakes are higher this year — if the Republicans fail to launch a candidate to the top of the ticket, Republican voter turnout could be dampened in November, posing a threat to the party’s ability to hold on to several congressional seats that are key to the GOP retaining control of Congress.
“It’s absolutely necessary that we as a party are united around the top race in the state,” Karen Roseberry, a Los Angeles County delegate, said as she unsuccessfully urged the party to reconsider the endorsement vote. “Every down-ticket race is counting on this.”
Despite losing out on an endorsement from their party, Cox’s and Allen’s campaigns both predicted top-two finishes in June to compete against Democratic front-runner Gavin Newsom in the general election.
“As someone who worked hard on this, I’m obviously disappointed,” Cox spokesman Matt Shupe said. “However, this does not stall our campaign one bit. We have the resources to move forward and take the fight to the Democrats. Travis Allen has no pathway without this endorsement.”
Allen framed the vote as a success because his supporters blocked an endorsement for Cox, a wealthy businessman who has donated more than $4 million to his campaign.
“We’re ecstatic. The bottom line is John Cox with his Chicago money tried to buy California votes,” Allen said, adding that he has more than 13 million mailers hitting GOP voters’ mailboxes next week. “We are going to go and take our message across the state of California, and we’re going to take our state back and I’m going to win.”
Both men face formidable challenges. The last time a Republican was elected to statewide office was more than a decade ago, and the party’s share of voter registration has plummeted since.
One possible bright spot for the party is a proposed initiative to repeal increases to the state gas tax. The effort is likely to qualify for the November ballot, and party leaders hope it will boost GOP turnout and appeal to Democratic and independent voters.
“This is unbeatable,” Carl DeMaio, a leader of the repeal effort, said to party activists on Saturday. “All we have to do is connect the dots.”
Recent polling shows Cox competing for the second spot in the run-up to the June primary, and some polls show Allen in striking distance. But the surveys took place before wealthy charter school backers contributed more than $12.5 million to an independent expenditure committee for a barrage of ads promoting former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a Democrat.
Among Republicans, Allen has enjoyed grassroots support, notably from many county GOP clubs, while Cox has more money and backing from establishment Republicans, including House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield.
The statewide endorsement process is new for the California GOP, enacted in October as an attempt to blunt the effect of the relatively new top-two primary, in which the top two vote-getters advance to compete in the general election regardless of party. It was also prompted by the 2016 U.S. Senate race, when GOP voters splintered among three candidates.
The party’s delegates did vote to endorse retired Judge Steven Bailey for attorney general, Cole Harris for lieutenant governor and Mark Meuser for secretary of state.
No candidate challenging Sen. Dianne Feinstein qualified to compete for an endorsement. A neo-Nazi Republican candidate who is challenging California’s senior senator was barred from attending the convention, condemned by party leaders and escorted off the property on Saturday morning as he kicked an Israeli flag.
The three-day gathering of nearly 1,000 delegates and their guests on Harbor Island was otherwise a largely quiet affair, with the greatest focus on the gubernatorial candidates as they wooed delegates. Flanked by sign-waving supporters, the candidates greeted delegates, delivered speeches and threw cocktail parties for their backers.
Allen campaign volunteers Laura and Craig Nelson, retirees from Rancho Cucamonga, said they were lifelong registered Democrats until they voted for President Trump in 2016. Though they couldn’t vote on an endorsement because they’re not delegates, they spent Saturday afternoon waving signs and chanting at passing motorists at a park between the convention hotel and the airport.
“Travis Allen is the people’s choice,” said Laura Nelson, 66, noting that Cox had unsuccessfully run for office multiple times and was funding his own campaign. “Cox is a carpetbagger from Chicago.”
Cox’s rivals frequently criticized his wealth.
“You have a guy with $5 million and dishing out beaucoup political favors versus a guy basically running on T-shirt sales and donations,” said Stephen Hockenbury, a psychiatrist and Allen supporter from Newport Beach. “Travis Allen doesn’t have a lot of money. What he has is a lot of people backing him.”
Hockenbury and others accused Cox of ripping off the assemblyman’s campaign themes. Cox threw a surfing-themed party for his supporters and volunteers Saturday night, drawing snarky comments from supporters of Allen, an avid surfer.
Cox supporters painted the businessman as the only viable Republican candidate.
GOP delegate Jack Frost, a member of the Sacramento County Republican Party central committee, said he initially backed Allen but cooled on the assemblyman as the campaign progressed. Allen had failed to raise campaign money, and to qualify his own gas-tax repeal initiative for the ballot.
“I feel he’s more interested in advancing his own personal standing than getting someone into the top two,” Frost said, adding that he was impressed by Cox’s willingness to spend his own wealth on the race. “And we really need to get someone in the top two. That’s really important to get Republicans to come out and vote.”
Allen also faced criticism from some conservatives for using $300,000 raised to repeal the gas tax on advertisements promoting himself, rather than on signature gathering for the surviving initiative. After Allen’s initiative effort failed, he announced his support for a campaign for a similar ballot measure led by DeMaio and chaired by Cox.
“He stole funding,” said DeMaio, a former San Diego City Council member.
Cox has contributed $250,000 to the petition campaign to put the repeal on the November ballot.
“John Cox is the only one who helped us. Travis Allen was a detriment to the effort,” DeMaio said.
Some party members called for unity among the two factions, arguing that the focus must be on beating Democrats and winning elections.
“There is clearly a divide,” said Jennifer Beall, a delegate from Orange County. “Let’s shake hands, move on and go walk precincts.”