Fighting to put a candidate before voters in November, California Republicans strongly preferred businessman John Cox for governor at the party's convention in San Diego this weekend.
During an endorsement vote Sunday morning, delegates favored Cox, 55 to 41 percent, over Assemblyman Travis Allen of Huntington Beach.
Cox has been trying to unify the state GOP behind his campaign ahead of the June primary, in which only the top two finishers will advance, regardless of party. Consistently leading in the polls and in fundraising, Cox argued to delegates that he is best positioned to challenge the frontrunner, Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, and his campaign took Sunday's result as an encouraging sign.
"Travis put his entire campaign and all his eggs in this basket of getting the endorsement. He has no pathway forward," spokesman Matt Shupe said. "We have the resources now to take the fight to Gavin Newsom."
Despite a heavy push that included unveiling the backing of House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, however, Cox fell short of securing the official California Republican Party endorsement, which required 60 percent of the delegates' vote. When Cox backers asked the convention to reconsider, a large and vocal contingent of Allen acolytes blocked their motion.
The seal of approval offered by the party endorsement would have been particularly beneficial to Allen, who has whipped up tremendous enthusiasm among conservative activists but lacks the financial resources of Cox.
While Allen has actually raised more money from more donors than his rival, Cox has buoyed his campaign with more than $4 million of his own money. In his most recent financial disclosure last month, Cox had $1.2 million on hand heading into the final stretch of the primary campaign, about nine times more than Allen.
"John Cox tried to use his Chicago money to buy California Republican votes, and today it failed," Allen said. "Our message is clearly resonating."
California Republicans now head into a critical election next month divided between the two candidates for governor. A public poll last month showed Cox and Allen within a few points of each other, both well-positioned to take second place behind Newsom.
But because of the nonpartisan primary, there is no guarantee. Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, another Democrat, is also firmly in the mix, and a group of billionaire charter school advocates has put $12.5 million into an independent committee that aims to push him over the top.
State GOP officials for the first time this election cycle instituted a pre-primary endorsement process in the hopes that the party would coalesce around one candidate and avoid the embarrassment of 2016, when no Republican made the runoff for U.S. Senate.
Jim Brulte, chairman of the party, said he feels confident that either Cox or Allen will finish in the top two, regardless of the endorsement outcome, because Republican voters have no reason to support any of the Democratic candidates.
"You want to know why every word out of the Democrats' mouth is Donald Trump?" he said. "Because they don't want the voters of this state focusing on what's happening here. Because they've owned the state, they broke the state, and Republicans, we're the fix."
The stakes are even higher this year: Missing a Republican at the top of the ticket could have dire consequences for several targeted House seats that are crucial to retaining GOP control of Congress. The party is also struggling with perpetually declining voter registration, which is on the verge of dipping below the number of Californians with no party preference.
This weekend's convention had dual goals: finding ways to fire up the conservative base and expanding the appeal of the Republican Party to a diversifying state.
At a packed Saturday morning session, lawyers offered advice to attendees who wanted to lobby their cities and counties to join legal challenges against California’s new "sanctuary state" law that limits cooperation between state and local police and federal immigration enforcement officers. Next door, proponents of a ballot initiative to repeal a recent increase of gasoline taxes and vehicle registration fees made the case that it was the best issue for Republicans to run on.
But when Patrick Little, an anti-Semitic candidate running for U.S. Senate, tried to register for the convention, organizers promptly had him escorted from the building by security and condemned his views. All of the keynote speakers — Rep. Mimi Walters of Irvine, Small Business Administration head Linda McMahon and Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa — were women.
Any tension over the party's future did not bubble to the surface in the endorsement race. Cox and Allen were so synched in their campaign rhetoric to delegates, emphasizing the lawlessness of the "sanctuary state," repealing the gas tax and taking back California, that Allen accused Cox of copying him.
Yet as they lobbied for delegates' votes, via e-mail blasts and Cox's Beach Boys-themed party Saturday night, their messages and styles quickly diverged.
Cox, a certified public accountant and lawyer from San Diego, was slightly gentler in his criticisms of California government and presented a more optimistic approach with his solutions.
He's best known for unsuccessfully trying to qualify initiatives in recent years that would have required lawmakers to wear badges with the logos of their top donors and would have expanded the Legislature a hundredfold with neighborhood-level delegates.
"This state is wonderful," he said in an interview. "It's a beautiful state, and it's been mismanaged by the Democrats, who have basically turned the state over to the special interests in Sacramento."
Cox touts his business credentials and says he imagines a more capitalist approach to governing, using incentives and competition to improve services and elevate the state's working people. He proposes, for example, incorporating telemedicine to bring down health costs and Medicaid spending.
"I've had a 40-year career in business," he said. "Mr. Allen has been an assemblyman and a stockbroker. There's just no comparison in terms of our maturity and experience."
He also seems to be thinking ahead already to the general election and reaching across the aisle to disaffected Democrats and independents as a path to victory. He paints himself in the mold of Charlie Baker or Larry Hogan, Republican businessmen recently elected to the governorships of, respectively, blue Massachusetts and Maryland.
"I'm going to build bridges between a losing system, which is what we have, and a successful one," Cox said.
Gina Roberts, vice chair of the LGBT organization California Log Cabin Republicans, said she was swayed to Cox in part because he has been more supportive than Allen on issues affecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals. She appreciated that Cox did not push his conservatism onto others: "A true conservative allows people to live their lives."
While Cox was quietly making the rounds to sway delegates, unveiling a string of endorsements from California's Republican congressional delegation, Allen boisterously dominated the convention, trailed by an army of chanting supporters.
A team of volunteers traveled with Allen throughout the weekend, documenting his every move for his large and dedicated social media following. Shaking hands with delegates in the hotel restaurant Friday evening, he stopped by a table of reporters to show off his Facebook page with half a million likes.
In an interview, Allen, one of the most outspoken members of the Legislature, said he's the only real conservative in the gubernatorial race. He also pointed out that he is the only candidate who supported Donald Trump in the last presidential election. (Cox voted for libertarian Gary Johnson, though he now says he has come around on Trump.)
Allen has his own Trump-ian boisterousness, frequently dismissing his rival as a "beta male" or "pathetic" or trying to buy off the Republican establishment.
He rattled off a five-point plan to "take back the state": Cut taxes, starting with the new gas fee. Get tough on crime by repealing a voter-backed initiative to reduce the severity of some drug and theft offenses. Expand roads to relieve traffic congestion. Let local school districts decide their own curriculum and give parents choice on where they send their children. Build new water storage.
He said a "silent supermajority" of Californians has been waiting for an agenda like his, which he promises will reverse 40 years of rule by the Democratic Legislature and restore the state to greatness.
"We can flood the Central Valley and everyone in California can take long showers again and have a green lawn," Allen said.
If elected, Allen said, he would immediately call a special election and collect signatures to put those priority issues, including undoing the "sanctuary state" law, before voters. But he rejects any comparison to California's last Republican governor, who tried something similar in 2005 and resoundingly failed.
"I'm going to be a governor like Ronald Reagan, not Arnold Schwarzenegger," Allen said, whom he believes became too much like the Democrats in Sacramento during his seven years in office.
That message resonates with Napa County Republican Central Committee Chair Kevin Hangman. At a Saturday afternoon rally for Allen outside the convention hotel, with honking cars driving by, he said he was excited by the excitement that Allen inspires.
"That was the biggest mistake the party ever made, hiring an outsider, a wealthy outsider," Hangman said. "How many times do we have to do that before we realize that that’s not what the Republican Party needs?"