Wading into a roomful of California tea party members over the weekend, the two most prominent Republicans running for California governor professed their reverence for President Trump.
It was a must-do if they want to win over the highly charged conservative activists who favor Trump. The tea party's rising influence in the state Republican Party makes its members' votes essential for any candidate hoping to coalesce enough GOP support to make it to the November 2018 general election. A USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll released in 2015 found that 48% of Republicans in California supported the tea party movement to some degree.
So Huntington Beach Assemblyman Travis Allen and Rancho Santa Fe businessman John Cox on Saturday worked feverishly to prove their pro-Trump credentials.
"I support Trump 100%. I'm happy he's elected," Cox assured about 120 members at the Tea Party California Caucus conference, dubbed "The Real Resistance," at a hotel near the Fresno airport Saturday.
Allen one-upped Cox when the stood at the podium about 90 minutes later: "There's only one candidate for governor who actually supported the Republican nominee for president, and his name is Travis Allen."
Still, both candidates had some explaining to do.
In 2012, Allen crisscrossed the country campaigning for GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who has been one of Trump's most vociferous critics. In November's presidential election, Cox voted for Libertarian Gary Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico. Cox also is a member of the New Majority, a group founded primarily by Orange County executives to nudge the state party away from social conservatives and their emphasis on issues such as gun rights.
Out of earshot of conference-goers, the Los Angeles Times also asked both Allen and Cox if they considered themselves tea party members. Both sidestepped the question.
"I just consider myself a common-sense Californian," Allen said.
Cox said he was campaigning across the spectrum of the Republican Party, including the gay group Log Cabin Republicans: "I'm out to unify all Republicans. I am at heart a fiscal conservative."
From the outset of their young campaigns, Allen and Cox have faced a seemingly insurmountable challenge. Not only are they up against three well-known, well-funded Democratic heavyweights — Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and state Treasurer John Chiang — but they're also running in a state where Democrats hold a 19-percentage-point advantage over Republicans in voter registration and where Hillary Clinton trounced Trump by 30 points last November.
Along with Cox and Allen, little-known GOP candidate for governor Stasyi Barth of Lake Elsinore was also on hand at the Fresno event. Barth, who had a table at the conference but did not have a speaking slot, pushed back on Allen's pronouncement that he was the only Republican candidate for governor to vote for Trump. Not only did Barth vote for Trump, she's a tea party member, she said.
Barth yelled above the din as members starting drifting out, telling everyone that she has been a proud, longtime tea party member and was a Trump supporter from the beginning.
If the Democratic vote splinters, the state's Republicans could provide enough votes for one of the GOP candidates to finish in the top two of the June primary. In California, the two candidates who receive the most votes in the primary advance to the general election, regardless of their party affiliation.
As the California Republican Party has weathered steady declines, the tea party's influence in the state GOP has appeared to grow across the state, especially in the Central Valley and California's northern reaches. But it still doesn't have anywhere near the numbers to get an ideologically pure conservative elected as governor, U.S. senator or any other statewide post.
"It's a faction of a faction right now," said UC San Diego political scientist Gary Jacobson. "It's hard to imagine that a party aligned with the tea party will be able to expand its reach."
But the conference was designed to do exactly that. Caucus chairman Randall Jordan, a general contractor from Paso Robles, urged members to run for local office, county Republican central committees or become a state party delegate.
"We have to take back the Republican Party. They're imploding," said Randall Jordan, who also serves as chairman of the San Luis Obispo County GOP Central Committee. "I know how terrible our Republican Party is here .… It's a good ol' boy club. It's run by big money."
The loosely affiliated, national tea party movement was born after President Obama was sworn in to office in 2009, fueled in part by outrage over the Affordable Care Act and the mounting federal deficit. In California, it has evolved into a network of chapters up and down the state.
To the north, tea party members have joined in the "State of Jefferson" movement made up of activists who feel ignored and mistreated by state government and want Northern California counties to break away into a separate state. To the south in the Inland Empire, tea party protesters in 2014 blocked buses filled with immigrants and their children bound for a U.S. immigration facility in Murrieta.
California tea party members still burn with mistrust of and animosity for the Republican Party "establishment," which they feel must be purged for abandoning core conservative ideals. Among their top targets over the weekend: the GOP-led Congress that failed to repeal Obamacare and a cadre of state Republican legislators who joined with Democrats to extend California's cap-and-trade environmental program.
The only thing salving that political animosity was the election of Trump, praised as a long-awaited savior after eight years with Obama.
"I believe [that] with Donald Trump God gave us another opportunity to save this country," Ken Campbell, a retired dentist from Lincoln, said before delivering the opening prayer for the conference.