By Joe Garofoli
March 20, 2016
Updated: March 20, 2016 – 8:15pm

With no statewide officeholders, little pull in the Legislature and a dwindling number of registered voters, California Republicans have teetered on the brink of irrelevancy for years.

But there’s an unlikely savior on the horizon who could help them inch back toward relevancy just in time for the June 7 California primary: Donald Trump.

The Republican presidential campaign front-runner is projected to be very close to securing the 1,237 delegates for the GOP nomination on California primary day, and analysts predict his name on the ballot could bring 15 to 30 percent more Republicans to the polls — both to vote for and against him. Only registered Republicans can vote in the party’s closed GOP primary, where 172 delegates are up for grabs.

The immediate beneficiaries of a Trump bump could be the Republicans on the U.S. Senate ballot, none of whom has been given much chance to finish in the top two in the race and advance to the general election in November. Bolstered by their party’s wide advantage in registered voters, two Democrats — Attorney General Kamala Harris and Rep. Loretta Sanchez of Santa Ana, have led in polls and raised millions of dollars. Their GOP rivals — former California Republican Party Chairmen Tom Del Beccaro and Duf Sundheim — are miles behind in both the polls and cash raised. Wealthy Silicon Valley businessman Ron Unz, a 1994 GOP candidate for governor and the author of 1998’s Prop 227, which effectively eliminated bilingual education in California, also entered the race this month.

Heavy GOP turnout forecast

Typically, about 46 percent of the voters in a California primary vote Republican. But the Trump factor — and the love-him-or-hate-him voters he is expected to drive to the polls here, as he has elsewhere — could boost Republican turnout enough to vault one of the Republicans into the top two.

“Frankly, I had written that race off as having the two Democrats in the top slots until this week” when the California primary became relevant because of Trump’s delegate math, said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report who analyzes Senate races nationally. “I think Republicans are now in a position to at least take a shot at one of those (top two) slots. A shot.”

It’s only been a few days since more definitive predictions of California’s relevancy started surfacing after Tuesday’s primary contests in five states scrambled the delegate math. So it is a bit early to find tangible signs of a Trump bump. Sacramento political consultant Paul Mitchell has not noticed an uptick in Republican voter registration.

“If (a surge) does materialize, it would impact down-ticket races,” said Mitchell, vice president of Political Data and one of the state’s leading experts on California’s racial and demographic groups. Mitchell has promised to run around the state Capitol naked if two Democrats advance to the general election in the Senate race.

Speculation over impact

So far, in the five primaries where there have been Senate races on the ballot, “Trump voters are not taking their anger out on other Republican candidates,” Cook’s Duffy said. “I don’t see a Trump voter going in and voting for anybody but a Republican.”

Other analysts, candidates and campaign insiders say that while they’re forecasting more GOP voters, they just don’t know which voters will show up. Not even the candidates are sure.

“I don’t know if you can draw a straight line from (Trump) to people voting for our campaign,” Del Beccaro said.

Sundheim, nevertheless, has felt the Trump bump. He hired a fundraiser last week for his bootstrap campaign, “and I couldn’t have done that before. There’s definitely more excitement now.” A California supporter of Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who suspended his presidential campaign last week, offered to connect Sundheim with 1,000 volunteers who were planning on campaigning for Rubio.

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