In a Central Valley barn decked out in red, white and blue, dairyman and state Senate candidate Johnny Tacherra drew cheers from a crowd of fellow farmers when he said he opposes the California Legislature's hike on gas taxes and vehicle fees.
"I would not have voted for that. It is not the time to be voting on (raising) the gas tax," said Tacherra, a Republican running against Democratic Assemblywoman Anna Caballero, who voted for the tax increase last year.
Three hundred miles away the same week, a campaign mailer arrived at homes in Orange County from an Assembly candidate with a message blaring from the cover in bold type: "Republican Greg Haskin — tough enough to stand up to Jerry Brown and repeal the gas tax."
Republicans are on the verge of turning in at least 830,000 signatures for an initiative to repeal the tax increase. Even before they know for sure it will appear on the November ballot, the party's candidates up and down the state already are acting to direct voter anger over higher fuel prices at Democrats who boosted the levies.
"Everybody on the Republican side, at least all my clients, are definitely making this an issue," said David Gilliard, a political consultant representing candidates including Haskin. "It's generating a lot of support in their districts, because people are angry about this gas tax and the price of gasoline in California."
Democrats say they are not worried, because the gas tax is paying for much-needed road and bridge repairs. The thinking is that President Trump's policy decisions will be a bigger factor for voters.
"The condition of our infrastructure is an embarrassment that hurts the entire economy of the state, and Californians want it fixed," said John Vigna, a spokesman for the California Democratic Party. "Republicans are deluding themselves if they think this is a silver bullet that will save them from the Trump-sized anchor weighing them down."
The initiative targets a law approved as SB 1 in April 2017 by the Democratic-controlled Legislature and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown. It is expected to raise $5.4 billion annually for road and bridge repairs and improvements to mass transit.
The money comes from a 12-cents-per-gallon increase in the gas tax, a 20-cent increase in the diesel fuel excise tax and a new annual vehicle fee ranging from $25 for cars valued at under $5,000, to $175 for cars worth $60,000 or more. Californians started paying the higher taxes in November, and more are to come.
In lieu of gas taxes, electric car owners will pay a $100 annual fee starting in 2020.
The repeal ballot measure is a constitutional amendment, and if it passes, it would also require approval by voters of any future gas tax increases.
Brown said at the time he signed the bill that it was needed to address a backlog of seriously deteriorated roads and bridges in the state.
"Safe and smooth roads make California a better place to live and strengthen our economy," Brown said then. "This legislation will put thousands of people to work."
But Republicans are betting big financially that the higher gas tax is an issue that can help them win races in a state where voter registration favors the Democrats — and the stakes are high for control of the U.S. House and restoring a Democratic supermajority in the Legislature.
The California Republican Party has sunk $300,000 into "Give Voters A Voice," the campaign committee seeking to qualify the repeal measure for the November ballot. Top Republicans have donated, with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield giving $400,000. Another $250,000 came from Republican gubernatorial candidate John Cox, and hundreds of thousands more were donated by other GOP congressional candidates.
The campaign needs 585,407 signatures of registered voters to qualify the ballot measure and hopes to turn in some 900,000 to county elections officials starting Friday, according to former San Diego City Council member Carl DeMaio, a lead organizer of the effort.
"The breadth and depth of voter anger over the car and gas tax hikes is just amazing," said DeMaio, who hosts a radio talk show. "We are seeing Democrats, independents and Republicans sign the petition and volunteering to carry the petition, people from all walks of life."
Opponents of the tax hikes have suggested transportation projects can be funded by state budget surpluses and by taking away the billions of dollars proposed for a high-speed train project that Tacherra called a "boondoggle" in his Central Valley campaign speech last week.
"Higher gas taxes mean less take home pay for working families all to pay for more spending by career politicians like Anna Caballero," he said after the event.
Caballero did not respond for a request for comment on Tacherra's criticism in the race for the senate seat left vacant by Sen. Anthony Cannella's retirement from the upper house.
Among others in the contest for the 12th Senate District, Republican Rob Poythress, a member of the Madera County Board of Supervisors, also opposes the gas tax increase. A second Democratic candidate in the race, Daniel Parra, who unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 2016, could not be reached for comment.
A spokesman for Brown declined to comment until the signatures are filed, but the governor has made clear he will defend the increases as a necessary investment for California's future.
Opponents of the tax hike are misjudging how concerned and frustrated voters are about the state's crumbling infrastructure, according to supporters of SB 1.
"California voters understand that our roads are a mess, our freeways and major thoroughfares are among the most congested in the nation, and Californians spend too much time stuck in traffic away from family and work," said Michael Quigley, executive director of the California Alliance for Jobs, a coalition of construction industry labor groups and contractors.
Republicans are predicting the issue will energize like-minded voters and hurt Democrats who supported the higher taxes. "I think this is going to put Democrats in real bad spot," DeMaio said of the repeal initiative.
A USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll in November found 54.2% of registered voters surveyed said they would repeal the tax and fee hike, but a survey a month earlier by another group said a majority would vote to keep the higher levies.
DeMaio said there were approximately 20,000 volunteer petition circulators who brought in more than 250,000 signatures, with the rest collected by paid circulators who received $1 to $2.50 per signature.
Opposition to the new law will grow, he said, as more Californians get their annual vehicle registration notices.
The repeal campaign hopes to raise $5 million for the campaign to pass the constitutional amendment.
"We know that Gov. Brown and his cohorts are going to spend an amazing amount of money to mislead voters," DeMaio said. "But I feel pretty confident that we will repeal the gas tax."
Indeed, a coalition of business, civic and labor groups called Fix Our Roads has vowed to spend "whatever it takes" to defeat the initiative.
"We're confident the voters of California will opt to protect funding for local transportation improvements by rejecting this ill-conceived measure," Quigley said.