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Republicans Smell Blood in the Water in California

A cautious optimism pervaded the gubernatorial debate hall at the Richard Nixon Library Wednesday night.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom looks on during a news conference after touring Barron Park Elementary School on March 02, 2021 in Palo Alto, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

YORBA LINDA— I’d bought a ticket to the circus.

That was, at least, the idea when I entered the “debate hall” at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California, on Wednesday night. Republicans might not think much of Covid-19 constrictions, but one restriction they’ll happily enact is segregating the fourth estate in a separate room with a malfunctioning livestream—like the enemy of the people that we are.

At the Graceland of Nixonianism, the cardboard cutout of Pat and Dick near the entrance sets the tone of the visit. It is a follow-up to snickering police instructions to “park next to the helicopter,” an enormous but idle Marine One that suddenly appears on the horizon, as happily retired as Charles Barkley. The venue selection of the campus dedicated to a near-great but failed president matches the mood of the Republican Party of California, if not these United States, in 2021. Certainly more than a summer sojourn up the coast to that memorial to that other Golden State Republican president would.  If the changes in the Republican Party these last several years has taught us anything, it is that we now live in a playground of Shakespeare characters, not happy warriors.

At the outset, the debate party is served a little decaf on account of some no-shows. No sighting of the most famous candidates for governor of America’s top state. It was a pass for the beleaguered governor, Gavin Newsom, a negative RSVP from the Caitlyn Jenner politics-as-therapy show, and a no-thanks from the self-declared “sage from South Central,” Larry Elder.

But by now, all pretty much know the score in a Californian recall. Question one on the September ballot: Should Newsom be spared further trips to Sacremento? And question two: Even if you don’t think so, you’re admonished to pick another governor from this long list, which runs the gambit from porn stars to reality stars.

So the atmosphere was Wild West, all by itself, even if most of the heavies didn’t show. And Republicans here thought they were about to hit pay dirt.

Just after the debate, an astonishing poll—for what those are worth—from Survey USA and the San Diego Union Tribune, saw publication: finding that 51 percent of respondents were in favor of recalling Newsom, while only 40 percent wanted him to remain in the saddle. Previously, this outfit found 36 percent in favor of the recall, while 47 percent opposed to the maneuver.

Background: There is the prospect of fresh Covid veiling across this land, at the behest of the White House, now the nerve center of the Democratic establishment. And, of course, inflation in the authority of public health officials has now spread to the U.S. dollar. Republicans paint a nightmare picture of borders besieged and cities dominated—not so much by a criminal element, as by a whole army of hopped-up hobos. But many Americans agree this portrait reflects reality, and not simply Republicans. For the disillusioned, that this and more is occurring even in California paradise is a nasty rebuke to the progressive (self-declared) project. So the ambition is that Newsom, now viewed in corners even of his own party as handsome but hapless, will go down in September as a the first political drowning victim of 2021, as the Biden wave recesses in autumn.

A boy can California dream.

One boy is Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, 36, who was just nakedly the brightest candidate on the stage Wednesday night. The only thing that kept him from running away with at least the debate trophy is that the man with solutions to the state with problems enunciates his ideas at an AK-47 clip, making anyone watching distracted by trying to guess whether it was Harvard or Yale Law School where the aspirant governor might have picked up a prolific cocaine habit.

Trying to play it off, Kiley said Thursday: “As your Governor, I’ll take action to turn California around just as rapidly as I spoke in that debate. No time to waste.” The young-man-in-a-hurry ethos is all-pervading with Kiley, but sometimes it pays to have a track record. America’s friction with China might be more emphasized in Washington than on the West Coast, but everyone knows what beaches the People’s Liberation Army would land on. The contest of the century came up even in Yorba Linda, and it’s clear the young gun is keeping his past suing the positively charmless Chinese telecom giant Huawei in his back pocket for a future run for office, which is what this run for office, a true long shot, is probably about.

Less content to wait some time is former Representative Doug Ose, returning to politics for this run for this first time since 2005. For his part, Ose, aged 66, emphasized that America is at war with China “right now,” and that he was totally done with the state’s plague of homelessness. True, he started out the debate sounding all over the place, but he ended it sounding like he meant business. He reminded me a little of the Governor Fred Picker character in the Bill Clinton-era roman a clef and film Primary Colors. Ose, like Picker, is a bear emerging from years of hibernation from relevance, a fed-up member of the old guard, selling himself as a plausible man for an implausible moment.  I don’t know much more about him, and seemingly does anybody else—he slinked away from Congress after honoring a very ’90s-era term pledge.

A champion of bears not in hibernation is Mr. John Cox, who has traveled the state with a Kodiak to drum up attention. The just-sincerely-shellacked Republican nominee for governor in 2018, Cox says he was right about Newsom and that Californians are about to pay him his due. He also said during the debate that there, theoretically, shouldn’t be a minimum wage, and that his wife hates his nose hair. Definitely well-meaning, he unfortunately for almost all involved cuts a desperate figure.

But what the hell? By virtue of this system, the next governor of California might garner 9 percent of the vote—literally—at the polls. No wonder Larry Elder didn’t think twice playing hookey for a fundraiser. No word on why Caitlyn Jenner is in Australia, but in victory, everything looks like a Machiavellian masterstroke.

Seemingly trying to play all the angles is the putative GOP establishment front-runner: former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer. As Ron Burgundy called the city’s residents, the San Diegan is from the only major metro era in the state left where Republicans aren’t hunted for sport. But the former city councilman who once ran on allowing booze on beaches before reversing himself in office has been true to form. Evading questions on the T-word on down, Faulconer was the most polished candidate on the stage but also the least punchy. He’s plausibly trying appeal to Democrats and even those voting against this recall and it may be a suave move on his part. But he has nary a pitch other than he’d be vaguely better than Newsom, which very well might be true.

Stepping out into the just perfect, low-humidity dusk after as good a show as any during our present malaise, I can report…

Like I said, I came not to bury California, but praise it.

about the author

Curt Mills is a contributing editor at The American Conservative, where he previously served as senior reporter. He specializes in foreign policy and campaign coverage and has worked at The National Interest, U.S. News and World Report, Washington Examiner, and the Spectator, and his work has appeared in UnHerd and Newsweek. He was a 2018-2019 Robert Novak Journalism fellow.

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