With supporters of the Gavin Newsom recall movement now claiming they’ve gathered 2 million signatures—500,000 more than they need to trigger a special election to decide the Governor’s fate—Republican gubernatorial candidates might be expected to join forces in their snowball’s chance to lead the deep blue state. Instead, they’re already locked in a intramural brawl that threatens to cripple the whole gang.
The GOP contenders are tearing one another apart as too moderate, inexperienced, or too baked into the California establishment, and that backbiting mirrors a national battle for the hobbled soul of a party rendered largely clueless in the wake of Donald Trump, Politico reports.
“Republicans are headed for a clash in the 2022 primaries about who’s going to control the party—is it going to be Trump and his acolytes or is the party going to move on with establishment conservatives like Liz Cheney?” says GOP strategist Rob Stutzman, who campaigned for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s winning 2003 recall bid, which ousted then-Governor Gray Davis. “It’s essentially an earlier, available version for this proxy fight to take place.”
Two of the first hopefuls to emerge, former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and businessman John Cox—who lost massively to Newsom in 2018 after spending $5.7 million of his own cash—have been blasting each other for weeks, much to the chagrin of party insiders who are all too aware that winning a statewide election is an uphill battle.
“I think that’s going to be the biggest thing we’re worried about going forward,” San Diego Republican donor and former Trump delegate Greg Lansing tells Politico. “At some point at least one of them needs to drop out. Republicans shouldn’t be fighting amongst themselves.”
Although Faulconer voted for Trump in 2020, he has distanced himself from Trump on issues like immigration and is leaning hard on his experience as leader of the second most populous city in the Golden State. One recent campaign mailer describes Faulconer as the only candidate with a “credible shot at winning statewide, despite California’s challenging voter registration.”
Cox, meanwhile, is taking aim at that self-asserted credibility, painting Faulconer as a moderate who won’t stir the MAGA types.
In a Cox ad that labels his rival “Gavin Faulconer,” a narrator claims, “San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer got the city to overpay for a high rise riddled with asbestos. The deal enriched a big campaign donor,” before mentioning Newsom’s disaster dinner at French Laundry “where the wine tab was $12,000.”
“Had enough of this?” Cox asks. “I’m a businessman, not a politician.”
In a recent interview with ABC 7, Cox explicitly turned an opportunity to criticize Ted Cruz’s ill-timed trip to Cancun into an opportunity to criticize his Republican opponent, saying, “I called out Kevin Faulconer who gave a sweetheart deal to a major donor, bought a building from them that turns out to have asbestos. It’s those kinds of corruption by Republicans and Democrats.”
Also opposing Faulconer is Carl DeMaio, a Trump booster, former San Diego Councilman, and conservative radio host. DeMaio, who is backing former Trump administration official Richard Grenell in a potential gubernatorial run, says California Republicans have “demoralized the base” by supporting a moderate.
A Grenell candidacy would likely siphon money and Trumpists away from both Cox and Faulconer, but Anne Dunsmore, a Republican who worked on the 2003 recall and runs a committee gathering signatures for this year’s initiative, tells Politico she thinks a GOP pile-on could actually help oust Newsom.
In the event of a Republican blood feud, she says, “they might beat on each other a bit but Newsom is going to be a target for about $30 [million] to $50 million of advertising and effort to point out how bad he is.”
At the moment, advisors close to Newsom aren’t overly concerned about the current crop of contenders. “There’s no Republican on the scene right now,” one Newsom adviser told Los Angeles recently. “But that doesn’t mean a movie star or a candidate with extraordinary star power couldn’t rise out of nowhere. That’s what I’m nervous about.”
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