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Locked out in Sacramento, California Republicans drive recall efforts, ballot measures

As California Democrats forge ahead into next year's midterm elections with progressive legislative wins in their pockets, Republicans are finding ways to push back outside of Sacramento — and seeing some success for their efforts.

Voters have been sending few Republicans to the state Legislature in recent decades so the GOP has taken to a flanking maneuver: they are calling on voters to recall Democrats and roll back some left-leaning policies.

Across the state there are signs of these GOP workarounds. For one, state Sen. Josh Newman (D-Fullerton) faces a likely recall election after being targeted by Republicans. Another recall effort seeks to turn Gov. Jerry Brown out of office, although it's a long shot given Brown's popularity with voters.

Supporters of a slew of Republican-led initiatives are also trying to qualify measures for the November 2018 ballot, two of which would repeal the gas tax and vehicle fee package. Conservatives are also targeting a key Democratic measure with a proposed referendum to overturn the recently approved "sanctuary state" law expanding California's immigrant-friendly policies. 

Even further to the right, another ballot proposal seeks to criminalize abortion as first-degree murder, regardless of whether the woman's pregnancy resulted from rape or incest. 

Fresno resident Ben Bergquam is a registered Republican and spokesperson for those pushing the referendum that would block the sanctuary state law from taking effect on Jan. 1, pending voters weighing in.

He said he's fed up with the state Democrats. 

"I'm sick to my stomach of what I see in Sacramento. The cesspool that exists up there, it's criminal," Bergquam said.

The GOP efforts will have to contend with the reality of life in a deeply blue state. And, as elections across the country highlighted earlier this week, it's tough for Republicans in this political moment. They face the challenge of convincing voters to support the GOP agenda, while being hobbled by a president with approval ratings hovering in the upper-30s and a Republican Congress that has yet to deliver major legislative accomplishments.

In California, the Republicans' legislative clout has continued to wane as party registration numbers have declined and more and more voters are choosing not to indicate a party preference.

Data from the Secretary of State's office from earlier this year shows just 25.9 percent of the state's registered voters are Republicans, down from 34.2 percent a decade ago. By comparison, voters who opt for no party preference make up 24.5 percent of registered voters, up from 18.8 percent. 

Democratic numbers have seen small rises and dips over the past decade: they comprise 44.8 percent of registered voters. Ten years ago, they made up 42.5 percent of the state's registered voters.

"Republicans are practically an endangered species in California," said David McCuan, political science professor at Sonoma State University. "Republicans need some reason to get their voters out."

By pushing ballot measures, Republicans can draw their core supporters and like-minded independent voters to the polls — and their presence can help GOP candidates on the ballot.

Former San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio, a Republican and radio talk show host, heads several of the post-legislative efforts. He's leading the recall effort against Newman and is heading one of the initiatives to roll back the gas tax. DeMaio also chairs Reform California, a political action committee focused on reforming state finances.  

"Politicians have raised taxes and added mandates that have cost families dearly," DeMaio said. "California used to be the Golden State with great opportunities, and the reckless policies of Sacramento politicians have really ruined the great opportunities in this state."

The best way to stop bad policies is to punish the politicians, DeMaio warned state Democrats. He described politicians in Sacramento as "shocked that we actually pulled off a recall signature drive against Newman," who voted with the Democratic majority for the gas tax increase.

DeMaio sees his gas tax initiative as having a strong likelihood of passage, with support crossing party lines: "It's game, set, match," he predicted.

A poll in June of registered voters conducted by the University of California, Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies found opponents of the gas tax outnumber supporters 58 percent to 35 percent. The opposition was described as broad-based and included large numbers of Republicans and no party preference voters. 

More recently, however, a statewide survey from Probolsky Research published in October found voters were not likely to repeal the gas tax measure. The poll, using the current ballot language from a second Republican-led repeal effort, found about 54 percent of voters would oppose a repeal.

That's in contrast to a new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll out today, which asked voters if they would vote to keep or cancel the law. In that survey 46 percent said they'd keep it and 54 percent said they'd cancel it. The poll also asked eligible voters if they favored the sanctuary state legislation, and found wide approval among Californians with 53 percent in favor.

State Democrats see the Republicans' recall efforts and ballot initiatives as the last gasps of a fading party.

"Republicans through their extremism, through their ideological rigidity have made themselves irrelevant in Sacramento," said John Vigna, the California Democratic Party communications director.

Vigna believes the California Democrats are leading the country into the future and creating policies that will eventually spread nationally.

"They [the Republicans] are trying to stop us because they know our success is a viable model that the rest of the country can look to to reject the craziness that's happening east of the Sierra Nevadas," Vigna said. 

Republicans have been buoyed by their success in keeping Newman from rescinding the recall petition against him. The state senator fell short of convincing the necessary number of voters to withdraw their signatures from the petition.

The effort to block the sanctuary state law, meanwhile, is fundraising and Bergquam expects to begin gathering signatures shortly. He is trying to make the case that protecting "criminal aliens at the expense of American citizens makes zero sense."

His frustration with the sanctuary measure, however, is directed not only at Democrats but Republican lawmakers who he says failed to put up a stronger defense against the legislation. "To sit there and listen to this garbage and not be shouting at the top of their lungs ... it just makes no sense," he said.

The timing of the Newman recall election has not yet been set, as aspects of the recall election are facing legal challenges. One possibility is that the election will take place during the June 2018 primary.

This story has been updated.