WHITTIER, Calif. – For anyone wondering about the state of the Republican Party in California these days, consider this: There may be no Republican candidate for governor or U.S. senator on the state’s ballot in November.
That dispiriting possibility is beginning to sink in for California Republicans, against the backdrop of a divisive debate among its candidates and leaders on how the embattled party can become competitive again in a state where Ronald Reagan was elected twice as governor and that Richard Nixon called home.
It’s no secret the state’s GOP has been in a decline for 20 years. Its challenges have been aggravated by Donald Trump’s election, as he has pushed tougher policies on such issues as immigration and the environment, running up against strong and often bipartisan sentiment in California.
A field of Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate and governor is struggling against these headwinds as they seek to end a more than 10-year drought and elect a party member to statewide office. Under the California election system, candidates compete in an open, nonpartisan primary on June 5. The two candidates who get the most votes — regardless of party — advance to the November general election.
If Republicans fall short in capturing one of those two November slots next month, which members of both parties say is a strong possibility, it would apparently be the first election since 1914 where a major party had no candidate in either the race for Senate or governor.
Republican hopes of getting a spot on the November ballot suffered another setback Sunday when party leaders, meeting in San Diego, failed to agree on anyone to endorse in the June primary.
“Maybe hitting rock bottom is getting shut out of both state races this year,” said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a former senior adviser to Pete Wilson, a GOP governor. “You would think that if Republicans are shut out, it will be time for some serious soul-searching.”
The party, if far from the dominant power it was once in California, is still a force. Two of the most powerful Republican members of the congressional leadership represent central California: Kevin McCarthy, a close ally of Trump, who is in line to become the next speaker should Republicans hold the house in November, and Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Both are popular in their districts and wield plenty of influence in Washington.
There are pockets of GOP strength across the state — in Northern California, the Central Valley and some suburbs — a remnant of when it was dominant statewide.
But the Republican Party holds no statewide offices. Democrats control both houses of the state Legislature. Party registration is on the decline. And one of the potential Republican candidates for Senate who some polls suggest has at least a theoretical shot of making it to the November ballot is Patrick Little, an extremist who has called for the country to be “free from Jews.”
A group of Republicans led by Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former Republican governor, and Chad Mayes, the former Republican Assembly leader, have launched a campaign to move the party to the center, arguing that would make it more competitive by increasing its appeal to independent voters and disaffected Democrats.
But that effort has run up against Republican candidates and elected officials who have tied their success to Trump and his administration’s policies.
“Arnold Schwarzenegger and Republicans like Mayes are completely wrong,” Travis Allen, a GOP candidate for governor and member of the Assembly, said in an interview.