Two Republican gubernatorial candidates hoping to defy the odds and defeat a long line of Democrats in the June primary will be making their case to 1,500 party faithful in San Diego this weekend in hopes of landing the party's official endorsement.
The thinking: The GOP's seal of approval will help guide Republican voters toward one candidate rather than splitting the vote and missing a ticket to the November runoff.
But in this blue state -- where Republicans only make up about one-quarter of the electorate, and no GOP politician has won statewide in over a decade -- the June primary is just the first hurdle for businessman John Cox and state Assemblyman Travis Allen of Huntington Beach.
Recent polls show the two Republicans virtually tied for second place behind Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. They've vaulted ahead of Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa by consolidating support among Republican voters, focusing their messages on issues that are red meat for GOP voters: lowering taxes, cutting government spending and fighting California's sanctuary state law.
So with a month left before the June primary, the governor's race appears to be fluid. A Republican isn’t guaranteed a spot in November, because of California's top-two primary system, which lets the top vote-getters in June advance to a fall runoff, no matter which party they’re affiliated with.
"It's definitely wide open," said Paul Mitchell, an expert in voter data whose company, Political Data, Inc., works for both major political parties. "I don't think the race for second place has really gelled yet."
And that's good news for Allen and Cox, said Mitchell. He noted that while Republicans only make up about a quarter of registered voters in California, they’re more likely than Democrats to vote in primaries.
"Even though we're expecting a big Democratic wave, that probably is something we'd see more likely in November," he said. "You're still going to probably see 33, 34, 35 percent of the electorate being Republicans (in June) -- far outstripping their registration rates."
And while repealing the gas tax and attacking Democrats' support for the sanctuary law is a safe tactic for appealing to Republicans -- in another recent poll by UC Berkeley's Institute of Governmental Studies, 88 percent of GOP voters said they oppose the sanctuary law -- it could backfire after the primary.
That same poll found a majority of overall voters backing the sanctuary law, including 52 percent of independent voters.
Even some members of the GOP think an anti-immigrant message is a bad gamble in California, where 10 million immigrants reside.
Republican consultant Mike Madrid is advising a Democrat: Villaraigosa, the former mayor of Los Angeles. Villaraigosais hoping to leapfrog over Cox and Allen and make the November runoff an entirely Democratic affair, and Madrid said he'd rather work for a Democrat he believes in than Republicans who are promoting the same message they have been for decades.
"You know, there’s no serious observer in California politics who believes that a Republican has a chance of winning the governor’s race," Madrid said, adding that the immigration debate in particular is a loser for the GOP in general elections.
"That calculation is one that Republicans have been making to their detriment for 25 years in this state," he said.
But Jim Brulte, head of the California Republican Party, is betting that voters’ dissatisfaction with bigger issues, like the gas tax increase and the high cost of living here, will provide an opening for a more conservative messenger.
"Voters understand that California is not all hunky dory and they also know the Democrats own California," he said. "They broke it. And if you want to fix it, you've got to change course."
So for now, Cox and Allen will likely remain focused on winning the support of their own party -- starting with delegates at the GOP convention this weekend.