Sen. Brian Dahle
Sen. Brian Dahle on the senate floor on the first day of the 2020 legislative session. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

At one level, it makes absolutely no sense for state Sen. Brian Dahle or any other Republican to run for governor of California.

The state’s sharp political shift from a purple state where the GOP could often win to one of the nation’s bluest bastions, which began a quarter-century ago, dooms any Republican candidate for any statewide office.

Running against an incumbent Democratic governor with fairly high approval ratings and who has twice garnered nearly two-thirds of the votes, as Dahle declared he wants to do, is a political kamikaze mission.

Nevertheless, Dahle, who represents a sprawling senate district in the state’s northeastern corner, will give it a try, hoping against hope that public unhappiness about Gov. Gavin Newsom’s one-man management of the COVID-19 pandemic will give him an opening.

“I love California, this amazing, beautiful state that used to be the land of opportunity,” Dahle said as he declared his candidacy in Redding. “But its leadership is so poor that people are running for the state line … trust me, if you get four more years of this dictator, it will cost you a lot more.”

“I am not some smooth-talking wine salesman from San Francisco,” he added. “I’m a farmer from Bieber. You might say I’m the underdog.”

He certainly is. It would take some sort of cataclysmic collapse by Newsom — some act of omission or commission that turned millions of Californians against him — to give Dahle or any other Republican even a slight chance of prevailing.

Newsom does have a tendency to fall on his face, as shown by his infamous attendance at a lobbyist’s birthday party without mask while exhorting Californians to mask-up. But it would take a much larger screwup to turn the tide this year.

All of that notwithstanding, by running for governor this year, Dahle could do something to help the California GOP, which now claims fewer than a quarter of the state’s registered voters — make it more respectable.

Although the GOP’s decline began in the 1990s for a variety of political, economic and demographic reasons, the advent of Donald Trump as the party’s commanding figure accelerated its descent into irrelevance. In 2018, mid-way through Trump’s presidency, Republicans lost half of their California congressional seats, and while the party rebounded a bit in 2020, Democrats continue to play the Trump card.

Newsom’s campaign spokesman, Nathan Glick, dismissed Dahle’s candidacy as showing a “sad state of affairs for the California Republican Party.”

“They are trying to pass off the same milque-Trump-toast that Californians soundly rejected last year,” Click said in a statement.

Dahle has the reputation of being a mainstream conservative and a serious lawmaker, more Reaganite than Trumpie, and would perform a valuable service for his party and the state by separating himself from Trump and his acolytes.

It would be difficult, especially since Dahle’s rural district is a hotbed of Trump cultists, as witnessed by the recent recall of a Republican Shasta County supervisor accused of not being militant enough.

The image of Republicans today not only hurts the party in a state like California, but hurts California because it needs a healthy two-party political system to curb the Democrats’ loonier element. The state works best when politics are playing out in the moderate middle, where consensus and compromise prevail.

A dignified, issue-oriented Republican challenge to Newsom, either by Dahle or another candidate, could begin to polish the party’s tarnished brand and help it regain credibility among no-party-preference moderates. They are as numerous as GOP voters and some are unhappy with the Democrats’ left turn and Newsom’s somewhat erratic ways.

Dan Walters is a columnist for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.