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President Trump is still grousing about losing the popular vote by 3 million to Hillary Clinton in 2016, but that doesn’t mean he’s doing anything about it this time around.

The president recently told Fox News’ Laura Ingraham there was “tremendous cheating” in the two biggest Democrat-dominant states during the 2016 contest, without elaborating.

“I think I did win the popular vote in a true sense,” Trump told Ingraham last week. “I think there was tremendous cheating in California. There was tremendous cheating in New York and other places.”

If Trump wanted a chance at winning the popular vote this fall, he would need to spend far more time and money in the Golden State. California is home to millions of Republicans, though they make up roughly only a quarter of voters in the Democratic stronghold.

But in close elections, every campaign must focus on the endgame of winning and pour resources into achieving that result. To that end, Trump and Joe Biden are slugging  it out for every vote in battleground states, with California’s 55 winner-take-all electoral votes certain to fall into the Biden-Harris column.

Trump came to California for only two hours on Monday because the raging wildfires made it nearly impossible to avoid amid his Western campaign swing. He visited Nevada over the weekend with plans to head to Arizona Monday evening. Instead of holding any type of campaign rally, the president spent his time hearing from state fire and emergency officials and honoring several California National Guardsmen for their roles in saving 242 people last week from certain death in the Creek Fire in Central California (pictured above).

Although Trump and Gov. Gavin Newsom were scheduled to meet privately during the short visit, both leaders carefully avoided a photo op. Newsom and former California Gov. Jerry Brown before him have served as a common foil for Trump in his war with California over the state’s immigration, environmental and coronavirus lockdown policies as they apply to both businesses and churches.

Trump and Newsom traded barbs over the weekend about who and what is at fault for the record fire devastation, with the governor slamming the president for failing to fight climate change and Trump faulting the state’s Democratic leaders’ environmental policies.

“Please remember these words, very simple — forest management,” he told a crowd in Nevada when mentioning the communities across the West battling the fires. “It’s about forest management and other things but forest management.”

It will likely be Trump’s only trip to California in the final sprint before Election Day, but state Republicans aren’t gloomy about their down-ticket prospects even though the president isn’t making an overt attempt to boost Republican turnout there.

'Very Animated Base' of GOP Voters

Longtime GOP political analysts say Trump’s high-profile feuds with California’s Democratic political leaders have energized Republican voters in the state, while Democratic failures have been on stark display in recent months. Amid record wildfire destruction this season, Californians have dealt with electrical blackouts and a series of confusing coronavirus lockdowns over the last few months, resulting in 14.9% unemployment across the state, more than six points higher than the national rate.

Sam Oh, a GOP campaign consultant working on two key Orange County congressional races this cycle, said internal Republican polling shows that voters in his party and on the Democratic side are energized to vote, so the growing number of independents across the state will determine the outcome of a half-dozen targeted congressional races. Democrats flipped seven GOP-held House seats in California in 2018 to gain a 45-to-7 delegate majority, and Republicans are focused on shifting at least some of them back this year.

“We’re seeing people fed up with the status quo, especially here in California,” Oh told RealClearPolitics. “[California Gov.] Gavin Newsom’s numbers rose during the pandemic, but you’re starting to see those numbers dip again because people aren’t happy with the way he’s handled the wildfires, the way the state is dealing with blackouts.”

Lanhee Chen, the director of domestic policy studies at Stanford University who served as the policy director for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, expressed similar feelings about the political climate for Republicans right now across the state.

“You’ve got a very animated base of [GOP] support in California,” he said. “I’ve been actually surprised in some ways just how energized Republicans in California are for the president, and I think that will end up helping some down-ballot Republicans.”

Even though Republican voter registrations in California have dwindled to 24% of all voters during Trump’s time in the White House (though the figure is up slightly from a 2018 low), there are still 5 million of them, nearly the size of some battleground states’ entire populations.

Chen said those remaining Republicans welcome Trump’s hard-edged derision of California’s high taxes and record of driving businesses and residents from the state.

“I think there’s a relatively high percentage of California Republicans who are very enthusiastic about the president precisely because he has been willing to voice in a more aggressive way some of that displeasure with the California liberal establishment than some other past Republican leaders have been unwilling to do,” he said.

Trump Holds Up California as a Disaster

California GOP voters can count on Trump to continue using the state to drive home his message that Democrats will wreck America and hamper the post-pandemic economic recovery. The president has repeatedly held up California as a cautionary tale of what life under far-left Democratic control would look like: a land where immigrants facing criminal charges can find sanctuary, where rioters attack police and property in major cities, and where Democratic politicians’ reliance on green energy alternatives such as wind has led to rolling blackouts.

“In California, Democrats have intentionally implemented rolling blackouts — forcing Americans in the dark,” Trump tweeted in mid-August. “Democrats are unable to keep up with energy demand.”

“Meanwhile, I gave America energy independence in fact, so much energy we could never use it all,” he continued.“The Bernie/Biden/AOC Green New Deal plan would take California’s failed policies to every American!”

Biden’s decision to tap Kamala Harris gave Trump another easy attack line against his opponent, with Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel gushing that the president was “thrilled” that Biden had picked an “extreme San Francisco liberal” to run with him.

“Californians have watched a one-party Democrat rule destroy their state, and they can see that a Biden-Harris presidency will simply be more of the same with Joe Biden’s own version of the Green New Deal and his atrocious $4 trillion tax hike,” Trump campaign spokeswoman Courtney Parella told RCP. “While California has a long history of going blue, we see enthusiasm and opportunity across the state to target voters at a local level in a way that will bolster President Trump and other Republicans up and down the ballot.” 

GOP operatives also see signs of hope in the unexpected landslide GOP win in May by Navy fighter pilot and Raytheon executive Mike Garcia in the special election to replace Rep. Katie Hill, a one-time Democratic rising star who resigned last year amid a sex scandal. Republicans hadn’t flipped a seat in the state since 1998. Garcia is now in a rematch against Democratic Assemblywoman Christy Smith, and Larry Sabato, a political handicapper, recently switched the race from a toss-up to “leans Republican." 

In addition to presidential politics, state and local policies are playing a key role in motivating independent voters, Republican analysts argue. Democratic super-majorities in the state legislature passed a law making it harder to classify gig economy workers as independent contractors. The union-backed measure was aimed at helping workers driving for Lyft and Uber ride-sharing companies, but other, less tech-heavy independent contractors’ work was caught up in the law too.

Gig Workers’ Bill Backlash

After a backlash from a range of workers in the entertainment, hospitality and freelance writing industries, Garcia has labeled the law known as AB5 as Smith’s “signature bill” after she voted to uphold it despite acknowledging some issues with the law. Garcia also has argued that her “allies in Sacramento” are now trying to target food and delivery services, which families, especially vulnerable seniors, have increasingly relied on during the pandemic.

Republican challengers are reminding voters that freshmen Democrats voted for a bill in Congress that mirrors the gig economy provisions of the state version. Orange County Supervisor Michelle Steel, a Republican running against Rep. Harley Rouda, recently hit Rouda for backing the House version.

“AB5 literally put Orange County citizens within hours of losing vital transportation and jobs in the middle of a pandemic,” Steel said. “. . . Harley Rouda wants to nationalize AB5, ensuring even more jobs lost along with curtailing a method of transportation for many who rely on these services.”

Democrats’ failed efforts to overturn Proposition 13, the state’s strict limits on the annual real estate taxes the state can levy, is another issue Republicans are playing up in the final few weeks of the campaign.

“These are very hot-button issues that should get the right of center in California interested,” said Bill Whalen, a longtime fellow at the Hoover Institution. “The question is whether these [GOP] campaigns are going to spend money on the air and on the mechanics of getting out the vote.”

Trump could boost Republican candidates regardless of his overall performance in California. In 2016, Trump won only 31.5% of the California vote, but GOP incumbent Rep. Ed Royce garnered over 150,000 votes in his suburban congressional district straddling Los Angeles and Orange County. In contrast, without Trump on the ballot in during the 2018 midterm election, Republican voter turnout dropped 9.5%. For Republican Young Kim – who ran for Royce’s seat when he stepped down in 2018 -- this translated into only 118,391 votes and a loss to her Democratic challenger Gil Cisneros. With Trump again on the ballot, the GOP hopes Kim will be able to benefit from higher turnout in a presidential election year and recapture the 32,000 Republicans and win the district.

“To the extent that you saw Republican turnout down in 2018, I do think some of that Republican turnout comes back this year because Trump’s at the top of the ticket,” said Oh, the vice president of Targeted Victory, a top GOP consulting firm, who is also assisting Kim’s campaign. 

The state’s new universal mail-in balloting in response to the pandemic is another added layer of uncertainty. All registered voters will be sent mail-in ballots, and the state will accept all ballots postmarked on or before Election Day -- even those received by county election offices 17 days after the election.

“I’m wondering what that means for my Thanksgiving,” one GOP operative told RCP. “Will we still be haggling over ballots and matching signatures over turkey and gravy?”  

Unlike Trump, who has warned against trusting mail-in voting, Republican operatives aren’t panicking after Garcia won the hotly contested special election that was conducted almost entirely by mail back in May because of the coronavirus.

In an unexpected twist, the mail-in voting that Democrats demanded and Republicans criticized appeared to benefit Garcia. Older Republican voters returned their ballots in much higher numbers than younger Democrats in the district. Republicans tend to fare better in California in elections attracting fewer voters, but Garcia exceeded party expectations in a race that attracted record participation for a special election.

(An earlier version of this story stated that California ballots postmarked 17 days after the election would be accepted.)

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics' White House/national political correspondent.

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