Rudy Torres had no idea that he’s among the most influential Republicans in California.
Torres runs a small insurance agency with his wife in east Los Angeles, and as the father of two, he says he’s more inclined to call himself a family man than a political activist. When a friend encouraged him to run to represent his neighborhood on the GOP county committee in 2016, Torres agreed; it wasn’t much of a commitment in an area dominated by Democrats, who outnumber Republicans by more than six to one.
“There are very few of us, so I was a shoo-in,” Torres said. Eventually, his fellow committee members stopped even showing up for party meetings.
But because of a quirk in the way the GOP chooses presidential nominees, Torres and other party members from Boyle Heights could have more say in the 2020 primary election than any other group of Republicans in the state. That’s because the party’s rules afford far more electoral power to districts where low numbers of Republicans vote.
In addition, a recent state law that bumped California’s primary date from June to March could boost the national impact of voters like Torres. The question is: Will they flex their electoral muscle in 2020 to back the president — or will they throw their support behind a challenger?
Mike Madrid, a GOP strategist and frequent Trump critic, says there’s an opportunity for a Republican who decides to challenge the president. “If there is going to be an insurgency, California is arguably the most important state,” with its size, diversity and earlier primary, he said.
Presidential nominees are elected by delegates to the two major parties’ national conventions. There are slightly more than 2,000 Republican delegates nationwide; California gets a whopping 172, more than any other state and more than the earliest four primary states combined. With a few exceptions, most of those delegates are elected by congressional district.
Here’s the quirk in the rules: Each of California’s 53 congressional districts gets three GOP delegates — no matter how many, or how few, Republicans live or vote there.
Compare the California district that typically has the most Republicans voting in presidential primaries with the district that has the fewest:
- In 2016, more than 100,000 Republicans in the 4th Congressional District, which traces the Sierra Nevada mountain range from Lake Tahoe to east of Fresno, voted in the primary. That translated to one delegate to represent every 35,000 voters.
- In Torres’ 34th Congressional District in east L.A., only 6,935 Republicans voted—the fewest in any district that year. Each delegate represented only 2,312 voters.
In other words, Torres’ vote was 15 times more powerful than that of any Republican in the 4th District (both districts went for Trump). In 2012, the GOP gap between the two districts was even larger, giving east L.A. even more influence.
While the Democratic primary system is more representative, giving more delegates to districts with more Democratic voters, the GOP primary is organized more like the U.S. Senate, which gives disproportionate voting power to sparsely populated, conservative states like Wyoming and the Dakotas — but in reverse. Republican voters in the least-red sections of California have the loudest voices in their state party.
Many such districts, clustered in east Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, have relatively large non-white populations that, according to Madrid, may be turned off by Trump.
“Black and brown Republicans have a disproportionately large impact,” Madrid said. And because those solidly blue sections of the state are not heavily courted by the state party, he added, they are “virgin territory” for a would-be challenger.
By organizing just a few thousand voters in Los Angeles and the Bay Area, an insurgent Republican campaign could rack up a dozen delegates and be a serious challenger, he said. That may be wishful thinking from an anti-Trump Republican who often works as a campaign consultant.
So far, Bill Weld, a Republican former governor of Massachusetts whose views skew libertarian, is the only notable person to announce a challenge to Trump within his own party. And Bill Weld is hardly a household name in California.
Many moderate Republicans, including former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, have encouraged John Kasich, the former Ohio governor and 2016 presidential primary candidate, to run again. So far, he has made no commitment.
Even if a challenger were to make a serious go of it, it’s unclear whether Republicans in California’s Democratic districts would stick with Trump or not.
Analyst Paul Mitchell of Political Data Inc. offers the 2016 presidential primary results as one piece of evidence that these voters might be receptive to a challenger. In districts where Republican registration was lowest that year, GOP support for Kasich, a relative moderate, was highest. And though that support never exceeded 27 percent in any district, the early primary this year could make a difference, said Mitchell.
“California Republicans might have a sense that there is real meaning to their votes in the primary this time, which was not the case in June of 2016,” he said. Most states hold their primaries earlier in the year; by June, the shape of the race is often clear.
But recent polling data suggests that Republicans may be inclined to unite behind the president. A Public Policy Institute of California survey in January found that 70 percent of Republicans approve of Trump’s job performance.
The poll sample wasn’t large enough to break down by congressional district, but comparing Republicans in blue regions like Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area to those in more conservative stretches of the state, the approval numbers were “basically the same,” said Dean Bonner, the institute’s associate survey director. The responses were also fairly consistent on narrower policy questions, such as whether the U.S. should erect a border wall.
And even if blue-district Republicans do vote against Trump, they may not wield enough influence to shake up the nomination, said Derek Muller, an election-law scholar at Pepperdine University.
“It would be very easy for someone like Kasich or Weld to pull a handful of districts out of California,” he said. But that might not be enough. And in any case, he noted, credible primary challenges to sitting presidents are rare.
Still, said Madrid, “the Latino Republicans in L.A. County alone could do massive damage to the Republican president” by supporting a challenger and calling the inevitability of the president’s renomination into question.
Rudy Torres, for one, has no such plans. He said he’s excited to vote for the president again, despite living in one of the state’s most Democratic districts.
“A lot of us are,” he said, speaking of his fellow east L.A. Republicans. “We are pretty much solidly behind him.”
CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.