With Help From Bannon, California GOP Hopes to Stoke Voter Anger

2 min
Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon will speak at the GOP's Friday night dinner in Anaheim. Bannon, characterized as the Grim Reaper in 'Saturday Night Live' skits, left the Trump administration in August and has returned to the helm at Breitbart News. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

With its share of registered voters continuing to slip and no particularly promising candidates for governor or the U.S. Senate, California Republicans are gathering in Anaheim this weekend in hopes of reversing their sunken fortunes by stoking voter anger.

"The party is focusing on some key issues of importance to voters, like the gas tax increase/repeal and other fiscal issues," said Harmeet Dhillon, Republican national committeewoman for California.

The state GOP, she said, will also sharpen efforts to recall Orange County Sen. Josh Newman, whose surprise election last year gave Democrats a two-thirds majority in the Senate. Gas tax opponents, led by San Diego Republican Carl DeMaio, have apparently collected enough signatures to place Newman's recall on the ballot.

Speaking before a group of Democratic activists at an Indivisible Orange County meeting in Fullerton Wednesday night, Newman called the recall attempt a "power grab" by GOP political operatives hoping to restore the Senate seat to a Republican.

"It's malarkey that this is about the gas tax," Newman said. "I'm being targeted because I'm vulnerable."

Activists gathered in Fullerton this week to defend their State Sen. Josh Newman from a recall drive over his vote for a gas tax increase.
Activists gathered in Fullerton this week to defend their state Sen. Josh Newman from a recall drive over his vote for a gas tax increase. (Gus Castellanos/KQED)

Both Republicans running for governor, Orange County Assemblyman Travis Allen and San Diego businessman John Cox, are supporting gas tax repeal efforts. Cox announced this week he would put some of his own money behind a  signature-gathering campaign for a version of repeal that includes a provision that any future gas tax increase would require voter approval.

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Just one Republican, Sen. Anthony Canella (R-Ceres), voted for SB 1, the massive transportation bill that raised the gas tax. But a total of eight Republicans supported Gov. Jerry Brown's push to modify and extend California's cap and trade program, a market-based effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions which contribute to climate change. Among those supporting it was Assembly Republican Leader Chad Mayes from Yucca Valley, triggering outrage among some in the party.

RNC Committeewoman Dhillon led a successful effort to depose Mayes for collaborating with Democrats. The caucus coalesced around Redding Assemblyman Brian Dahle to replace Mayes.

Dhillon said Dahle is a welcome replacement for Mayes, who was known for working with Democrats on some issues.

But the debate over the Republican party's response, or lack thereof, to climate change and other environmental issues, exposed divisions within the GOP. Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger applauded Mayes for what he described as his political courage in casting a tough vote to do something about greenhouse gases.

"I like Brian (Dahle), and am pleased with some of his staff choices, and have every hope that he will navigate these challenging times with his conservative principles intact," said Dhillon of the new Republican leader in the Assembly.

With the party short on California star power these days, the GOP imported former Trump whisperer Steve Bannon to speak at the Friday night dinner in Anaheim. Bannon, characterized as the Grim Reaper in "Saturday Night Live" skits, left the Trump administration in August and has returned to the helm at Breitbart News.

Dhillon has never met Bannon but said, "I’m sure his remarks will be interesting and noteworthy, and he has a lot of ardent followers in the ranks of the party faithful."

Republican consultant Sean Walsh is not one of them. Walsh, who worked for Pete Wilson when he was governor, said inviting Bannon to speak sends the wrong signal to Republican donors.

"It plays to the activists," said Walsh. "But the activists are not the people who get people elected in California. It’s too big, it’s too complex. It’s akin to a cult. If you follow somebody who is too radical and too extreme, you’re going to run yourself right into the dirt."

It's hard to remember, but just 18 months ago there was a significant contingent of "Never Trump" Republicans in California.

This weekend's convention and invitation of Bannon indicate those days are long gone.

Note: This story contains a correction from an earlier version which stated that Assemblyman Chad Mayes voted to raise the gas tax. He did not. Instead, he voted for a bipartisan effort to revamp and extend the state's cap and trade program.