California’s an Unlikely Place for a GOP Primary Battle

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

A growing number of pundits are suggesting that the excruciating slog to the GOP presidential nomination could come down to the California primary on June 5.

That’s good news in one way, since a GOP primary is about the only California election a Republican is a safe bet to win these days.

Think of the irony of having California determine who gets to face President Barack Obama in November. Republicans from across the country would be breathlessly waiting for results from the bluest of blue states, one where GOP registration is barely 30 percent and sinking and where the party couldn’t muster the votes to elect an insurance commissioner in the 2010 election.

In 2010, Republican Meg Whitman spent $159 million to lose the governor’s race by 13 percentage points. By next year, Republicans could make up less than one-third of the state Senate and D.C. Democrats are talking about picking up five or more GOP congressional seats here in 2012, making the state the linchpin of their longshot strategy to retake the House.

Sounds like a fun place to run a high-profile GOP presidential primary campaign, doesn’t it?

If the Republican campaign train does manage to wheeze its way into the state, the candidates will have their work cut out for them. According to a Public Policy Institute of California poll released earlier this week, half the likely Republican voters aren’t satisfied with their choices of candidates in the 2012 presidential election, even though – or maybe because – Obama’s would-be challengers have been slugging it out for months.

And the race is tightening. While Mitt Romney leads in the new PPIC poll with support from 26 percent of likely GOP voters, that’s down from 37 percent in a January survey. Rick Santorum is now at 22 percent, up from 15 percent, with Newt Gingrich at 17 percent and Ron Paul at 8 percent.

Of course the one thing the Republican presidential race has done this year is remind voters, political consultants and various prognosticators alike that polls really are just snapshots of where a race stands on a particular day and that, as the stockbrokers like to say, “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.”

Three months is an eternity in politics and the smart money is still betting Romney will have the nomination virtually locked up before Californians cast their ballots.

Still, a full-out campaign would be fun for the whole family, be they Republicans, Democrats or decline-to-state voters, if only as a preview of the nastiness likely to be featured in the fall presidential contest. Besides, the state could use the money the campaigns would have to toss around to make a dent in California media markets.

Although Romney, Santorum and the rest of the cast haven’t exactly driven up the turnout in the early primary states, California GOP leaders will be happy for anything that might provide a bit of excitement for the party faithful, who haven’t had much to cheer about the past few years.

If California does turn out to be the key presidential state, though, the joke’s on us.

In 1996, the state abandoned its traditional June primary in presidential election years, hoping to turn California voters into the kingmakers of the party primaries. Every four years, the primary date was pushed earlier and earlier, until in 2008 voters had a chance to vote on Feb. 5, along with 22 other states and territories.

Faced with the disturbing possibility of holding the 2012 primary in 2011, political leaders finally surrendered to reality and went back to the June primary that voters had always been perfectly happy with.

But the very year that California has stopped chasing the presidential primary candidates, those same candidates just may start chasing California.

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.

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