Assemblyman Travis Allen and businessman John Cox, two politicians unfamiliar to most Californians, share an audacious goal that no Republican has achieved in more than a decade: to be elected governor of the Golden State.
Despite the Democrats’ dominance of statewide politics in California, the two men think the state’s liberal-leaning voters are open to their message. They believe growing frustration with California’s high cost of living and what they describe as liberal overreach in Sacramento — most recently the gas tax increase — could tilt the race in their favor.
But the obstacles are daunting. Democratic Party advantages in voter registration, money and power have led the GOP to near-irrelevance at the state level. One way Cox and Allen hope to reverse that course and raise their name recognition is through ballot-measure campaigns. The men have pitched separate efforts to repeal the gas tax, and Cox also has submitted voter signatures to qualify a ballot measure to dramatically restructure the Legislature.
Allen compares the mood of the electorate to that 14 years ago when Democratic Gov. Gray Davis was recalled in a historic election and replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger, the state’s last Republican governor.
“Californians have had enough. They’re tired of being marginalized and ignored,” Allen said. “Californians are tired of having to send their kids to failing schools and being stuck in the nation’s worst traffic and suffering through recurring droughts due to crumbling infrastructure.”
But neither Cox nor Allen is a wealthy celebrity with Schwarzenegger’s global name recognition.
The state also has grown more liberal since the recall. Democrats have a 19 percentage-point voter registration advantage, and only 1 in 4 of the state’s voters are registered Republicans. No GOP candidate has been elected to statewide office since 2006, and Democrats hold supermajorities in both houses of the Legislature.
And neither has enough support to take one of the top two spots in the June primary, according to a new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll.
But Cox and Allen are convinced there is a path to victory, and both have skin in the game: Allen is giving up his Assembly seat to run for governor, and Cox has contributed $3 million to his campaign.
On the campaign trail, they both talk about how difficult and expensive life has become for many Californians.
As he made his case to a GOP women’s group in Riverside last month, Cox spoke of his concerns for his four daughters, the youngest of whom is 12.
“I want her to be able to live near me,” he said. But, he added, young Californians “are moving away because they can’t afford to live here. A lot of businesses are saying the same thing, they can’t locate in the state because their employees can’t afford to live here.”
Allen, a financial planner, spoke at a backyard GOP fundraiser in Arcadia in October and noted that his parents, brother and best friend all left the state because of housing and economic considerations.
“I’ve lived my whole life in this incredible state,” he said before asking crowd members whether they wanted to retire in the state. All agreed.
“I’m just like you. The problem is my family is gone. My friends are gone. And I’m kind of stuck. I’m a Southern California surfer,” he said. “I live in Surf City, U.S.A.: Huntington Beach.”
The men have different rationales for their candidacies.
Cox says that while he is a social conservative, he is focused on fiscal issues — slashing regulations and making the state more welcoming to businesses.
The multimillionaire made his money as a corporate lawyer, financial planner and real estate manager. He is trying to position himself as a pragmatic Republican businessman who can appeal to independent and moderate Democratic voters to win in an overwhelmingly blue state, similar to Govs. Charlie Baker in Massachusetts and Larry Hogan in Maryland.
The GOP governors “focused on what I intend to focus on and that is the business climate, putting people to work and solving the problems,” Cox said.
Allen, meanwhile, proudly carries Trump’s banner, noting he is the only Republican in the race who voted for the president. Cox voted for Libertarian Gary Johnson.
He gleefully takes swipes at GOP leaders, including House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, raises incendiary issues such as access to bathrooms for transgender people and proudly embraces positions such as increased offshore oil drilling that are deeply unpopular with Californians.
Allen argues that Trump’s 4.5-million votes in California in 2016 show there is a path for a Republican to win the governor’s race — he received more votes than the nearly 4.4 million Brown won two years prior.
But several factors cut against that argument: turnout is substantially lower in years without presidential campaigns, Brown was facing an unknown and underfunded candidate in 2014 and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton trounced Trump in the state by more than 4 million votes in 2016.
The 2018 election also could serve as a referendum on a president who is deeply unpopular in California.
Another problem for Cox and Allen is that neither has the resources of their Democratic rivals, notably front-runner Gavin Newsom, who has raised more than $16 million. GOP donors and party leaders are not expected to invest in the gubernatorial race. They are focused on several vulnerable congressional seats in California that could determine whether their party loses control of the House.
Cox argues that 2010 GOP nominee Meg Whitman’s unsuccessful $178-million campaign showed that money is not determinative in winning a race, and that social media now has greater influence than television advertising. Allen points to his social media following and the army of volunteers he has marshaled to help GOP candidates in races around the state.
Republicans voters are still getting to know both men. Several who saw them speak recently said they appreciated their message railing against Democratic one-party rule in the state, but are realistic about their prospects.