One Thing California Republicans Agree On? Repealing the Gas Tax

San Diego Republican Carl DeMaio, who is spearheading the drive to repeal of the gas tax, says the measure will help Republicans in November. (Marisa Lagos/KQED News)

California Republicans gathered in San Diego for their state convention may be butting heads over who the party should endorse in the governor's race, but everyone seems unified on one message: Repealing the gas and car taxes passed in Sacramento last year.

Backers of the measure say they submitted nearly 1 million signatures this week to get the repeal measure on the November ballot -- far more than they need to place the question before voters. And at this weekend's convention, many are tying that effort to the chances for overall GOP electoral success in California. This in a state where no Republican has won statewide office in over a decade and Democrats are targeting seven congressional seats now held by Republicans.

Rep. Mimi Walters, an Orange County congresswoman whose seat is among those in Democrats' sights, told party faithful Friday night that the gas tax repeal and the health of the GOP nationally are linked.

"Before the Democrats try to defeat President Trump in 2020, they are targeting Republicans in 2018 -- and nowhere harder than right here in California," she said. "Their plan to cripple our Republican president means first cracking Congress ... If the Democrats can't drive us out of California, we will still stand strong everywhere -- one way we will do this is through the direct democracy of the initiative process."

Walters has been key to the gas tax repeal effort, making so many calls to raise money for it that state Senate Republican Leader Pat Bates joked Friday night that she almost changed her cell number. The congresswoman told Republicans that having the repeal on the November ballot is "the last thing the Democrats wanted -- this was not the way they saw 2018 shaping up."

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Carl DeMaio, who is heading the gas tax repeal effort, agreed. He said the initiative will help lift what he said would otherwise be "depressed turnout" for Republicans running for Congress and state offices.

"It will motivate turnout, and lets be very clear: Republicans have a turnout problem this year," DeMaio said. "It's because many Republican voters don't think the U.S. Congress has done enough to produce results, and they don't think the state Assembly Republicans or state Senate Republicans have done enough -- that's the perception."

Of course, what happens in the governor's race could also impact the success of the gas tax repeal. Many Republicans are worried that if GOP candidates are locked out of the governor's race by California's top two primary system -- which lets the top vote getters in the primary advance to the general election, regardless of party affiliation -- that would depress conservative turnout in November.

That fear has prompted the party to change its rules and endorse a candidate ahead of the primary at this weekend's convention; the endorsement vote will take place Sunday morning.

David Wolfe, legislative director at the nonpartisan Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, said his group decided to endorse businessman John Cox over Assemblyman Travis Allen in the governor's race -- an unusual move for the organization -- for the same reason.

"We think it's really important for a Republican to finish in the top two," he said.

While both Cox and Allen support the gas tax -- Allen unsuccessfully tried to place the repeal effort on the ballot earlier this year -- the issue has become a sore spot in the race, causing a rift between supporters of the two Republicans.

The gas tax was part of a larger transportation infrastructure package that will funnel $52.4 billion over the next decade to road, bridge and freeway repairs and transit projects by raising fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees. The money is being split between local and state governments.

Last month, state officials announced they were issuing $2.4 billion in funds for transit projects around California.