Simmering anger over California Democrats’ passage of a $52 billion gas tax and soaring prices at the pump were the driving force that propelled GOP businessman John Cox to a surprisingly solid second-place finish in the gubernatorial contest Tuesday night, according to several Republican strategists.
Energized by their overwhelming victory in removing a state senator from office as punishment for his vote to hike gas taxes, Republican organizers of the recall push and a parallel effort to repeal the gas tax this fall are planning to double-down on the strategy in the general election.
Voters recalled state Sen. Josh Newman by a wide margin Tuesday.
Carl DeMaio, a popular radio talk show host and former member of the San Diego City Council who organized the recall, celebrated the victory and said it buoyed the campaigns of several key Republicans up and down the state, including Cox’s.
"Make no mistake about it: State Sen. Josh Newman's political career is over because he supported the car and gas tax hikes," DeMaio said earlier in the evening. "No amount of special interest money could save Josh Newman because of voter anger over the gas and car tax hike is so intense."
The other GOP candidate in the gubernatorial contest, Travis Allen, rejected the gas-tax issue while Cox "got behind [it] pretty early," DeMaio said.
Newman managed to flip the normally conservative stronghold previously held by termed-out Republican Sen. Bob Huff to the Democratic column in 2016. His win handed Democratic state legislators a supermajority in the state legislature.
He was one of 81 legislators who voted to back the 12-cent-per-gallon increase to the gas tax, but Republicans were able to tap into the widespread exasperation over the higher levies in his conservative district to oust him from his seat.
Republican challenger Ling Ling Chang is positioned to replace the freshmen legislator, according to early returns.
Newman spokesman Derek Humphrey said in a statement late Tuesday that Republicans focused their money and organization on his race but were only successful because of low voter turnout in the primary.
"The Republicans spent a lot of money lying to voters to get this on the ballot," Humphrey said. "And they got exactly what they wanted—a re-do of the election but with only half the number of voters participating. That's the definition of an undemocratic special interest power grab."
Despite the grousing, polls show deep discontent over the gas tax hike across the state. A USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times statewide poll found that 51 percent of California voters want to repeal the gas tax, with those numbers reaching 64 percent in Newman's district, which stretches from Orange County to the Inland Empire.
The state Republican Party spent more than $1.2 million on the recall and Democrats, including Gov. Jerry Brown, countered with more than $4 million to fight it. The state Senate's Democratic Caucus also backed an effort by the State Political Practices Commission to lift a $4,400 limit on contributions to Newman from other senators.
In the final weeks of the campaign, Newman's supporters donned bull costumes and congregated on busy street corners in the district, waving signs that read, "The recall is bull—."
However, DeMaio and other Republicans said the issue embodies the problem with out-of-touch Sacramento Democrats.
Diane Harkey, a Republican and the top vote winner in the 49th Congressional district Tuesday, said Democratic legislators don't understand that soaring gas prices are forcing voters to make difficult budget choices, especially when the state's housing prices far exceed the national average.
Democrats in Sacramento are forcing some residents in the state to "choose between buying gas and buying groceries," each day on their way home from work, Harkey, who sits on a state tax board, said Tuesday night.
Cox also used the gas vs. groceries choice in his speech to supporters Tuesday night, accusing gubernatorial frontrunner Gavin Newsom of being tone-deaf on the issue.
"You’ve had eight years, and your party has made a colossal mess of this once-golden state," he said to Newsom, who serves as lieutenant governor.
"And how many California parents will send their kids to failing schools with no end in sight?" he said. "Trust me, Gavin, the number is way more than 51 percent, and that's what I'm going to get in November. We can have a real choice. We don't have to continue the status quo."