Trump is still the favorite for California GOP delegates

An attendee prepares to leave after U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy spoke during the the state Republican Party convention in Sacramento on March 11, 2023. Photo by Rahul Lal, CalMatters

If the latest public polling is to be believed, Republican voters in California, like party faithful across the country, are swinging rapidly toward favoring Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in next year’s presidential primary.

But if the attendees at the latest California Republican Party convention — a gathering of the GOP’s most dedicated activists, volunteers and local officials that took place over the weekend in Sacramento — are anything to go by, former President Donald Trump is still unquestionably the man to beat as he seeks his party’s nomination for a third time.

“Nobody comes up to me and says, ‘What about DeSantis?’” said Deborah Baber, a delegate from Ventura County, as she hawked MAGA Republican buttons outside a Saturday lunch banquet headlined by the new House Speaker (and Bakersfield’s favorite son) Kevin McCarthy, the weekend’s marquee event.

Clad in a stars-and-stripes “Make America Great Again” jumpsuit and flashing a red, white and blue rhinestone Trump purse, Barber’s unmissable display of support for the former president was a common motif at the convention. Trump’s name and slogan were everywhere to be seen, on signs and apparel and campaign paraphernalia; DeSantis, who it should be noted has not yet declared that he is running for president, not so much.

Outside the entrance to the convention center downtown, in a light drizzle, Ed Malik stood beside a handwritten poster declaring that “Trump is the ONLY anti-war candidate” and handing out a four-page packet warning that “Ron ‘DeSanctimonious’ is not what his manufactured persona suggests he is.”

Though not a delegate to the convention, Malik and a friend had driven up from Alameda County as volunteers for the Lyndon LaRouche Political Action Committee, to shore up support for a man that they worried might get pushed aside by party insiders after his contentious loss in the 2020 presidential election.

“It’s going to be a battleground,” Malik said.

By the only real metric we have at this point, roughly a year before Californians weigh in with their primary ballots next March, that is certainly the case.

The UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies released a poll in late February that found DeSantis leading a list of 11 possible candidates among GOP voters in the state, with 37% support, ahead of Trump with 29%. That was a reversal from six months earlier, when Trump led DeSantis by nearly the same margin.

The spiked barbs that DeSantis regularly trades with California’s Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, over policy and hair care routines, has only solidified his standing among conservatives in the Golden State over the past year. He made a brief swing through Southern California last week, including a sold-out event at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library to promote his new book.

By more unscientific measures, however, it’s not even close — at least here among the most committed and hardcore Republicans in the state.

Take the grassroots straw poll that Orange County delegate Evelyn Nunez Jones and Los Angeles County delegate Rudy Melendez were organizing at the convention by handing out business cards with a QR code link to an online survey. Early results, with about 150 participants, showed Trump running away with three-quarters of the vote, they said, ahead of a field including DeSantis, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley (who is running for president) and former Congress Member Liz Cheney (who has not announced a campaign).

Or consider merchandise sales. Marty Miller’s “My Campaign Wear” booth in the convention hall featured Trump 2024 flags and powder blue t-shirts with “DeSantisland” written in the Disney script above a map of the United States — a nod to the Florida governor’s star-making battle against the corporate giant — alongside “Let’s Go Brandon” baseball caps and hot pink buttons proclaiming “hot chicks vote Republican.”

Miller estimated that Trump gear was outselling the DeSantis offerings 85% to 15%. He had loaded up on DeSantis items because his supplier, who is based in Florida, “thought the DeSantis stuff would go really big out here. And it hasn’t.”

Among those shopping was Napa County Republican Party chair Doris Gentry, sporting a Trump lanyard for her convention credential and a sparkling American flag brooch. She remained loyal to the former president, she said, because “we know what he did, so we know what he will do.”

Like many other Trump supporters in attendance, she did not dislike DeSantis. But she urged him to hold off running for president and continue to build his power in Florida, which would make him an even more powerful contender four years from now.

“When he went to the bathroom” at the Reagan Library, she joked, “Reagan whispered, ‘It’s not your turn. Wait until 2028.’”

“Then in 2028,” she added, “he’ll be jet fuel.”

Heather Matsen, a volunteer for the Sacramento County GOP who was staffing a neighboring booth, agreed that Trump’s experience made him best suited to take on President Biden next year and then fix the direction of the country in a second term.

“We’re not going to have four years to find his footing,” Matsen said. “He learns from his mistakes. So where (the) house didn’t get cleaned before, he’s going to clean house right away.”

Mingling with other delegates outside committee meetings, Mark Rizk of Los Angeles County was a rare DeSantis supporter. He had purchased a t-shirt (“Ron DeSantis For President: The Courage to be Free”) earlier in the day, which he proudly pulled out his bag to show off.

DeSantis is “someone who has a lot of the same great ideas that Trump has, but not the baggage that he has,” said Rizk, who began drifting away from the former president after the Jan. 6 “fiasco” where rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to help Trump overturn the results of the 2020 election.

Rizk said he has been making a strategic case to his fellow Republicans: that DeSantis would do better among independent voters, while nominating Trump again would only alienate them and hurt down-ballot GOP candidates in 2024. It did not seem to be resonating at the convention.

“They have vested their heart in it. Their heart is so into Donald Trump,” he said. “They’re basically going to throw the party under the bus for his ego.”

But there’s still a year — and a formal campaign— left to change those hearts and minds. Rizk sees it in Biblical terms, with DeSantis as the Israelite leader Joshua.

“Moses led the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt, but God anointed Joshua to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land,” Rizk said. “He will be our Joshua leading us into the Promised Land.”

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