After their decade long agony of defeat, California Republicans can suddenly see a tiny flicker of hope on the horizon.  It comes in the form of the gas tax increase pushed through the legislature by Gov. Brown and majority Democrats which it turns out is quite unpopular.  Can Republicans make any political hay out of this and begin to reverse their fortunes?

According to a new poll from the Institute of Governmental Studies, 58 percent of California voters oppose the new tax, only 35 percent are for it, and opposition is most fervent in politically swing parts of California like the Inland Empire and Central Valley.

In one sense this is counter intuitive; roads in California are in wretched shape with more potholes than ever before.  But scratch a little deeper and opposition to new taxes to pay for road repairs makes sense.  First, what happened to the $20 billion in transportation bonds the people voted in 2006?  Why hasn’t that money been used to fix the roads?  Second, in the $183 billion dollar budget passed last week one would think there could be at least a billion or two more that could be spent on roads.

But legislative Democrats are not willing to cut other programs to pay for road repairs.  There is a Democratic constituency for every dime in the budget and these interests cannot be told to do with less.  For instance, the budget that just passed contains $6 billion (roughly the amount the gas tax will raise) to backfill overly generous public employee pensions.  State pensions are unaffordable, but rather than make any cuts or impose new efficiencies, the public employee unions demand that Democrats simply throw more money at the system, this year an extra $6 billion.

The politics of Sacramento left no alternative but to stick it to the people to the tune of over $5 billion with this highly regressive gas tax increase, and the signs are that voters are upset by this.  Freshman Democratic Sen. Josh Newman (D-Fullerton) is now subject to a recall election due to his vote for the gas tax, while an Orange County GOP Assemblyman is trying to qualify an initiative to repeal the gas tax for the November 2018 ballot.

Democrats are so upset by the recall, they passed a secret bill last week to jigger the law to make sure the Newman recall is on the June 2018 primary ballot rather than this fall as the constitution requires.  Republicans are screaming bloody murder at this attempt to rig the recall election, but actually stretching it out for a year may work to their advantage by keeping the issue alive and giving their candidates something to talk about.

The problem, however, is that there are no Republican candidates.  There is not a serious candidate for governor, and thus no way to frame the gas tax debate as a campaign issue.  If next year’s fall general election simply features two Democrats trying to out Trump-hate each other, there will be little reason for Republicans voters to turn out, and certainly any attempt to repeal the gas tax would lose.

Additionally, the race for control of the US House of Representatives goes through California.  Seven of the 14 GOP incumbent members of congress are in districts carried in 2016 by Hillary Clinton, and all are potential 2018 targets.  At least two or three other seats carried narrowly by President Trump could be on the list.

With as many as 10 Republican-held congressional districts at risk in 2018, California alone could produce more than half the gains Democrats need to return Nancy Pelosi again as House Speaker.

A top two Democratic runoff for governor in 2018 makes this scenario all the more likely; millions of GOP voters will simply stay home (as many Republicans refused to vote in the race between the two Democrats running for the US Senate in 2016).  With no candidate to articulate opposition to the gas tax increase, and by implication to the methods of allocating public funds in this state, the effort to make the tax a political issue will have failed, and California Republicans will simply continue unabated their descent into a long night of darkness.