Donald Trump, as usual, stole the show.
He was the guy who drew the protesters, who had to crawl through a cut chain-link fence and walk in a back door to avoid the angry throngs, who required metal detectors and Secret Service searches for his Friday lunch speech at the California Republican Party’s state convention.
He was the strutting Republican presidential front-runner, the mercurial speaker who talked of GOP unity one second, only to hurl an insult at one of his fellow party members the next.
But Trump’s dominance this weekend at the state convention was more than his outsized public persona. He also loomed large long after he departed the Hyatt Regency San Francisco Airport following his speech.
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That’s because ultimately, the question for the Republican Party is will he or won’t he win the party’s presidential nomination during the primary election season – and California GOP voters on June 7 will very likely decide that question.
Yes, Trump’s fellow hopefuls appeared at the convention. Ohio Gov. John Kasich spoke at Friday’s dinner, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz at Saturday’s lunch. Cruz’s vice presidential pick Carly Fiorina chipped in Saturday night.
But at this point Cruz and Kasich can’t win enough delegates to win the nomination outright. All they can do is try to stop Trump from getting the nomination and force the final decision to the party’s national convention this summer in Cleveland. If Trump reaches 1,237 delegates by the end of the primary election season, he will be the nominee. He said on Friday that he had crossed the 1,000-delegate mark.
California Republicans, I don’t think, are focused on, or excited by, or will rally around, one candidate. It’s a very subdued group. I’m not sure there’s that much enthusiasm for doing anything but letting the process roll on.
Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a veteran political analyst at the University of Southern California
Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a veteran political analyst at the University of Southern California, didn’t sense an enthusiasm among delegates or feel that they were coalescing behind a particular candidate, even though Cruz has the best organization and certainly offered up plenty of rhetorical red meat during his Saturday lunch speech.
“California Republicans, I don’t think, are focused on, or excited by, or will rally around, one candidate,” she said. “It’s a very subdued group. I’m not sure there’s that much enthusiasm for doing anything but letting the process roll on.”
And that, Jeffe said, benefits Trump because he is the front-runner.
If nothing else, the three candidates this weekend mostly reinforced their already well-documented campaign images.
Trump blew in, gave a 26-minute stream-of-consciousness speech, hammered on his front-runner status – and departed. Kasich pushed his moderate, “only adult in the room” image and offered up a sober address that touched on non-Republican campaign issues such as homelessness and mental illness. Cruz gave a traditional, crowd-pleasing stump speech heavy on pithy one-liners that focused on his push to be the most conservative candidate in the race.
So who walks away the weekend’s winner? And what now?
Given the response to the candidates, Jeffe didn’t really feel there was any winner.
Still, Harmeet Dhillon, the state Republican Party’s vice chair, said there was plenty for the candidates to accomplish at the convention. She said it was a perfect place to find Republicans who are willing to be delegates to the national convention. The other job is to try to win them over.
The rank-and-file Republicans who attend state conventions matter, because California awards 159 of its delegates by congressional district, winner-take-all. That means the candidate with the most votes in each of the state’s 53 congressional districts will win three delegates per district. It will make California feel like 53 small election battles and will require campaign organization and coordination.
“California is unique, obviously, because of the expense of the media markets, and because of the spread-out nature of the state,” Dhillon said.
A possible Kasich strategy
Given that, does it make sense to focus resources on Fresno? The media is cheaper than Los Angeles or the Bay Area, but the Fresno market is large geographically and only includes all or parts of six congressional districts. That’s 18 delegates.
How about focusing on the Bay Area, which includes nine congressional districts and is a more compact region? That could net 27 delegates, which Dhillon noted is more than many states.
Matt Shupe, a Fresno State graduate and Bay Area political consultant who supports Kasich, thinks that is what the Ohio governor might do.
His pitch mirrors Kasich’s. He is moderate, he isn’t a political bomb-thrower, and most important – he’s electable. Shupe cites polls that show Trump and Cruz would lose to likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, while Kasich beats her.
“You might agree with someone 100 percent of the time, but if they can’t get elected, it doesn’t matter,” he said.
Kasich echoed that in comments to reporters, saying if Trump is the Republican Party’s nominee, “he will get crushed in the fall.”
Many delegates were impressed with Kasich’s speech – even Dhillon, though she said she still likely won’t vote for him.
Still, there is a huge question about how many delegates – if any – Kasich can win in June. He may have some inroads in the Bay Area, and many in the central San Joaquin Valley’s agriculture community like him for his pro-trade stances and his support for comprehensive immigration reform. Trump and Cruz are against the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, for instance, and their opposition to immigration reform is well-known.
But Cruz supporters say he has the best campaign organization in California, while Trump remains a master at using his star power to gain free media through campaign rallies.
Republican political strategist Jon Fleischman, a Cruz supporter and publisher of the FlashReport, a widely read conservative blog, said Trump’s strategy is “running campaigns at 30,000 feet in the air.” He flies in, holds a rally and heads out, while Cruz’s strength is in a political ground game.
“The question, in a state as big as California, does organization matter?” Fleischman asked.
In his speech Saturday, Cruz mixed the political red meat delegates love – saying he would abolish the Internal Revenue Service, repeal Obamacare and kill the Iranian nuclear deal – with some California-specific references, including some pointed comments on water that likely will resonate well in the Valley.
He specifically mentioned the controversial delta smelt, a federally protected fish, noting that a trillion gallons of water goes into the ocean because of “a little 3-inch bait fish.”
Cruz slams Endangered Species Act
Cruz said the federal Endangered Species Act has gone too far in protecting fish instead of people.
Thoughout the speech, Trump never seemed far from Cruz’s mind.
He told delegates the nation needs a leader who is “sober and stable and level-headed,” who will “not explode at the latest Twitter storm … someone with character. Someone who actually believes something.”
He said that “Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are flip sides of the same coin” and noted that Trump had contributed money to prominent state Democrats, including California Gov. Jerry Brown, Attorney General and U.S. Senate candidate Kamala Harris and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.
In addition, Cruz picked up the endorsement of former Gov. Pete Wilson, who introduced him.
The way he represents himself and speaks and gives you facts and information. You know where he stands. He’s a fighter. So I know he’s solid.
Ray Seibert, a farmer and Madera County delegate
Given Wilson’s divisive history with the state’s Latino population, that endorsement might not help in a general election, but it might in a GOP primary in which only Republicans can vote.
Ray Seibert, a farmer and Madera County delegate, said he prefers Cruz and wasn’t impressed with Trump on Friday.
“The way he represents himself and speaks and gives you facts and information,” Seibert said, “you know where he stands. He’s a fighter. So I know he’s solid.”
Given those efforts this weekend by both Cruz and Kasich, Trump still was able to sum up the situation with one sentence, said Dhillon, the state GOP vice chair: He has more than 1,000 delegates.
“Even if you’re a Cruz supporter you’re listening to that, and you go, ‘yeah, what about that?’ There’s my commitment to my candidate, but then there’s math. In the presidential race, people typically don’t want to throw away their vote.”