After two election cycles offering a self-described socially moderate congressional candidate, Central Coast Republicans are putting their weight behind a pro-Trump, pro-oil, pro-”family unit” candidate in 2020.
Twice trounced by Democrat Salud Carbajal, the local GOP this time around is banking on the celebrity of longtime local conservative radio host and columnist Andy Caldwell, who’s making the switch to politician after a 25-year career as a pundit and lobbyist.
But it’s not going to be easy.
The 24th District — which currently represents all of San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties as well as a sliver of Northern Ventura County — has voted solidly blue since it was redistricted in 2011.
Voters here overwhelmingly preferred Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election and, most recently, chose Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom by more than 13 percentage points, according to the California Secretary of State.
The Republican Party chapters in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties had previously endorsed two-time candidate Justin Fareed, deemed by the party to be a “young gun” who could appeal to the younger voters any successful candidate desperately needs in two counties with large college student populations.
But that strategy didn’t work. Fareed lost handily to Carbajal by almost seven points in 2016 and by more than 17 points in 2018.
So the GOP is switching it up this year, backing a staunch conservative practiced in verbally sparring with politicians and policymakers.
“Yes, Andy can beat Mr. Carbajal,” San Luis Obispo County Republican Party chair Randall Jordan wrote in an email to The Tribune. “He has debated Salud and I believe is best suited to hold his feet to the fire on issues that are important to us all: jobs, (a) common sense energy stance, (the) homeless problem, and more.”
But other local conservative voices aren’t so sure.
Include among them Michael Erin Woody, a Morro Bay engineer and moderate conservative who lost to Fareed in the 2018 primary and who was eyeing another run in 2020 before Caldwell jumped into the race.
Woody, whose views on social issues and local oil and gas production don’t align with the traditional conservative narrative, says the 24th District is socially more liberal and a conservative candidate should reflect a more moderate stance.
“I think any conservative candidate is going to have a difficult time in this race,” Woody said. “As much as there will be many older Republicans who will find comfort in (Caldwell’s) stance on social issues, my concern is that it continues to be out of step with voters along the Central Coast who want a representative to focus on much more pressing issues.”
Despite that, Woody predicts Caldwell will be a formidable candidate who will “have the support of the Christian right, development interests, and the oil industry.”
Though he said at a recent interview that he never before had ambitions for public office, Caldwell says his outlook changed after watching U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare, speak at a Republican Party fundraiser in Pismo Beach in June.
Caldwell announced his candidacy on Aug. 13.
Caldwell, whose 25 years in radio includes a daily talk show on 1440 AM in Santa Maria, has also had a long presence in print in The Santa Maria Times and now publishes three times a week in The Santa Barbara News-Press.
He’s also known as the founder of the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture, and Business of Santa Barbara County (COLAB), for which he continues to serve as executive director. Through his lobbying efforts on behalf of COLAB, Caldwell says he’s known Carbajal for more than two decades.
In an interview late last month, the local media personality said he stands a good shot against Carbajal due to the congressman’s support of what he called “an open border policy,” and conservative non-starters such as the Green New Deal and exploring impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump.
“I believe he’s shifted beyond the comfort zone of his own base,” Caldwell said of his opponent. “He’s gone all in with (Nancy) Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.”
Caldwell was born on an Air Force base in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1958, to a World War II veteran father and Austrian-born mother.
His family later moved to Lompoc, where he was raised and graduated from Lompoc High School. He says he worked his way through college as a seasonal laborer and graduated from University of California, San Diego, with a bachelor’s degree in social sciences.
Out of college, Caldwell worked for Union Sugar Co., ultimately moving up to industrial relations manager in 1987. In 1991, he left the company to form COLAB to advocate on behalf of local business interests against state and local regulations and fees he says were stifling the economy.
“The county was killing us, so we started to fight back,” Caldwell said. “I fought for working class people because I was one of them.”
Today, COLAB of Santa Barbara County — whose stated mission is to “achieve a balance between environmental and economic considerations” by lobbying at the county government level — says it has more than 1,300 members. Offshoots have formed in San Luis Obispo, Ventura, and Imperial counties.
A Democrat for most of his young adult life, Caldwell says he changed parties around the time he formed COLAB. Today, he says he supports most of the policies of Trump, whom he called a “brilliant international businessman.”
“I think his heart’s in the right place,” he said.
In the last local congressional race, Caldwell said he endorsed Fareed, who he said he was happy to support because “he wasn’t Salud Carbajal or Lois Capps.”
“There were things I didn’t like about him. I thought he was too young and too inexperienced,” Caldwell said. “But I thought he had great ideals.”
Caldwell on the issues
As far as ideologies go, Caldwell and Carbajal could not be more opposed.
But Caldwell said he doesn’t believe the U.S. can wean itself off oil consumption for transportation or oil byproducts such as plastics and asphalt, for at least 30 to 50 years.
“To me, the most environmentally sensitive and conscious way to produce the oil that we ourselves consume in (the district) is producing it here locally, because we have the most stringent rules and regulations in the world,” he said.
Citing a so-called “environmentalist” credo of “think globally, act locally,” Caldwell said it’s the “height of hypocrisy and irresponsibility” to import oil and gas “from around the world where it’s produced with none of the rules and regulations.”
“For the most part, the oil and gas industry is safe. They have accidents, but so does every other industry,” he said.
He downplayed the environmental harm done by local oil spills dating back to the late 1960s and said that natural gas seeps from the below the ocean floor are far more harmful in the long run to the local environment.
“We have the second most prolific oil seeps in the world off of the Central Coast,” he said. “Drilling relieves the pressure from those natural gas seeps.”
Asked about renewable energy such as wind and solar, Caldwell said the economy ultimately “chooses the form of energy we use.”
Though he said he supports the development of alternative energy sources, he is staunchly against mandating or subsidizing them.
And while he said he believes the global climate is changing, he says it’s not accelerated by human activity.
“I believe the only thing that climate does is change,” Caldwell said. “I’m not going to believe that man is causing or accelerating climate change until somebody explains the Ice Age to me. “
Now facing a political opponent who is a naturalized citizen from Mexico and has advocated for a reasonable path to citizenship for immigrants and asylum seekers from around the world, Caldwell, who comes from a family with an immigrant parent, said he “loves and values the fact that we are a nation of Native Americans, colonists and immigrants.”
“I love the concept of the melting pot, the American Dream, all of that. I believe in it all,” he said. “Most Americans will not take jobs that are arduous and seasonal if they can avoid it. So I believe that ag, construction, and visitor-serving businesses that ... are arduous are going to need an immigrant workforce.”
Caldwell said that having a viable guest worker program would serve that demand but prevent whole families from following the worker into the U.S.
“They end up getting subsidized housing, put a demand on schools and on medical services and things like that .... and they compete for housing,” Caldwell said.
He added that he doubts the large numbers of people seeking asylum in the U.S. are truly fleeing violence as their primary motivation, and asked why many from South American countries south of Mexico don’t seek asylum there.
“That shows they weren’t seeking asylum; they were seeking the American Dream,” he said. “I don’t demonize them for doing that, but we have laws.”
Regarding the mental health crisis in American cities, prisons and county jails, Caldwell said the latter have become the country’s de facto mental health institutions, calling the mass closure of public institutions in the 1980s “a mistake.”
He supports rebuilding those institutions, he said, with public-private partnerships.
Related to mental health, he said, is the state’s problem with homelessness, which he argues has cost California billions of wasted dolllars trying to solve.
“The people, they’re out of their minds. Throwing housing at them is not working,” he said. “We’re throwing billions of dollars at (the) homeless (issue) and it’s just getting worse.”
Caldwell claims that 85-90% of people who are homeless suffer some form of mental illness and/or substance abuse issue for which treatment is the only solution. For those who don’t fit into that category, “those are the ones you throw a house at,” he said.
He said that under Democratic Party leadership, California’s urban hubs have become “third world hell holes” and public health crises in which infectious diseases such as typhus are making a comeback due in large part to homeless encampments.
Caldwell said he’s opposed to the state’s recent efforts at criminal justice reform, which reduced penalties for some low-level and non-violent crimes. He said voter-passed initiatives such as Proposition 47 and Proposition 57 led to defendants failing to appear in court for their offenses and police avoiding making arrests for small crimes.
He said he’s instead a proponent of a “Broken Windows” type policing where crackdowns on the small crimes have a supposed ripple effect on the larger ones.
“You have to deal with mental health and drug addicts and alcoholism as the root cause. The root determines the fruit, and we quit dealing with the root,” he said. “I go back to institutions and criminalizations.”
Caldwell has written extensively about the state’s wildfire crisis and argued that environmentalists “fight to protect habitat which is the fuel, as if it’s sacrosanct, instead of managing the habitat.”
“Create fuel breaks, do control burns, and I’d go buy 10,000 goats and let them go throughout the Los Padres (National) Forest and replace them as they get eaten by other animals,” Caldwell said.
A well-known media personality
As a radio host and newspaper columnist with his own media commitments, Caldwell’s celebrity poses some unusual campaign issues for a local race.
Myles Martin, spokesman for the Federal Election Commission, the regulatory agency charged with administering and enforcing campaign finance law in federal elections, declined to comment specifically on Caldwell’s candidacy.
Generally speaking, however, Martin said the commission has opined on similar issues about whether a candidate’s media engagements equate to free campaign advertising.
In one advisory opinion, the commission held that a candidate could continue to host a radio show during his candidacy “if they refrain from expressly advocating their own election (or the defeat of their opponents), and would not solicit campaign contributions during the show,” Martin wrote.
Another FEC advisory opinion addressed an incumbent member of Congress who hosted a monthly public affairs television show while also a candidate.
In that opinion, the commission wrote that it considered whether particular activities involving the participation of a federal candidate, or communications referring to a federal candidate, result in a contribution to or expenditure on behalf of such a candidate under the Federal Election Campaign Act.
“The commission has determined that financing such activities will result in a contribution to or expenditure on behalf of a candidate if the activities involve (i) the solicitation, making or acceptance of contributions to the candidate’s campaign, or (ii) communications expressly advocating the nomination, election or defeat of any candidate,” according to the opinion.
Martin noted that those advisory opinions are case-specific and may be relied upon for legal guidance by others only if the facts are materially indistinguishable between the two situations.
“However, if the facts and circumstances differ, a candidate may wish to request his/her own advisory opinion from the commission that could make determination of the permissibly of a proposed activity based on the specific facts and circumstances of his/her situation,” Martin wrote via email.
Caldwell pledged to not promote his campaign or attack Carbajal’s in his media platforms.
“I will not campaign through them; I have not mentioned my campaign through my radio show at all; and I won’t write anything about Salud in the News-Press, either,” he said.
Caldwell noted that his campaign is being advised by Charles Bell, who as of last year was vice chairman of the California Republican Lawyers Association, and whom Caldwell called “the best election law attorney in the state of California.”
“He says that on an opinion page, you can’t campaign, but you can give opinions,” Caldwell said. “I don’t try to exploit people, and I don’t try to exploit situations.”
Republican Party of San Luis Obispo County chair Jordan said he sees no issues with Caldwell keeping his media engagements.
“Andy is realistic about equal time and does not and will not promote his campaign on his show,” Jordan said. “His integrity will keep everything above board.”
Asked about Caldwell’s media engagements, Carbajal’s campaign spokeswoman Noelle Rosellini wrote in an email that they’re focused on running their own positive campaign.
She added, however, that “questions around the ethics of Mr. Caldwell’s radio show and columns are important, and they deserve answers and more clarification.”
How can he beat Carbajal?
Jordan said the Republican Party of San Luis Obispo County endorsed Caldwell at its Central Committee meeting Aug. 21. He thinks Caldwell’s 25-plus years in the political arena makes him knowledgeable on a variety of subjects.
“This, plus his ‘cut to the chase’ attitude and integrity are definitely his strengths,” Jordan wrote via email.
He said Woody “would have made a great candidate,” but that “Andy’s appeal is that he is well known all over the Central Coast.”
Asked about whether Caldwell can beat Carbajal given the latter’s commanding defeat of Fareed by 58.6 to 41.4% percent in the 2018 general election, Jordan pointed to Republican candidate Chris Mitchum’s 2014 campaign, which came within 4 percentage points of defeating longtime District 24 Congresswoman Lois Capps.
“Ms. Capps was a stronger candidate than Mr. Carbajal,” Jordan wrote. “Chris was an effective candidate, but Andy Caldwell has knowledge, name recognition, and most of all, common sense, which is lacking now in our congressman.”
Despite differences over some issues, Woody in an email last week called Caldwell a “good friend,” and said he will vote for him in 2020.
But Woody said the Republican Party in California is at a crossroads with “an older conservative generation that wants big government controlling our personal lives and a new generation that is fighting for less government and individual rights at all levels.”
“(The older generation) still live in a world where they wrongly believe that your sexuality will dictate your ability to have a family and be a parent, or that women should not have a choice when it comes to reproductive rights,” Woody wrote. “The world has changed, and they missed it.”
Woody also said the debate over oil and gas production will play a big role in the race.
“You have Carbajal who wants to shut down the oil industry with ideas such as the Green New Deal that will destroy high-paying technology jobs, and Caldwell who wants to expand offshore oil drilling which has historically created environmental havoc along our coastlines, and which will not make a dent in our national oil output,” Woody wrote.
Fareed did not respond to an emailed request for comment on Caldwell’s candidacy.
Carbajal’s campaign says that although it’s far from certain who will challenge the incumbent in the general election, they’re confident “that the work Salud has done in Congress and his commitment to Central Coast values will keep resonating with voters.”
“From standing up for veterans and promoting job creation to ensuring the local agriculture industry is supported, he’s been a voice for all of his constituents, regardless of party,” Rosellini wrote in an email.
Asked about the role oil and gas production will play in this race, Rosellini said the issue is “crucial” in the district and provides a stark contrast between the two candidates, citing Carbajal’s history of opposition to offshore oil development, emphasis on transitioning to renewable energy, his support of local jobs, and environmentalism.
“To be a voice for the Central Coast, a candidate must be willing to stand up for the environment while supporting job growth,” she wrote, “so the clear divide between candidates on oil is apparent — and it will be very important in this race.”