In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti likened Trump’s handling of climate change to his management of the coronavirus pandemic, saying that while climate change is not his fault, “His climate denial is only making these events get worse.”
Dismissive of climate change, Trump has sought to capitalize instead on social unrest in California, Oregon and Washington, holding liberal Democratic leadership in those states out as a foil in his law-and-order-focused campaign.
Earlier this month, Trump threatened to curtail federal funding to “anarchist jurisdictions” or any city that “disempowers” or “defunds” its police. He specifically called out Seattle, Portland, Ore., New York and Washington, D.C., for review. After the ambush of two sheriff’s deputies in Los Angeles, he wrote on Twitter of the gunman, “Animals that must be hit hard!”
Trump still regularly refers to his administration’s intervention in protests in Portland, including this past weekend, when he called it “pathetic” that Portland’s mayor, Ted Wheeler, planned to move from his condo building because of protests there.
“And by the way, the U.S. marshals did a great job in Portland,” he said to cheers. “They did a great job. You know what I mean. If Biden wins, the rioters win, the anarchists win, arsonists, flag burners, they all win.”
Justin Matheson, a Republican consultant in his home state of Washington and neighboring Oregon, said the months of protests and violence combined with the depressed economy have created opportunities for Republicans in suburban areas outside Seattle and Portland.
“We’ve seen, especially coming out of our [Washington] primary, base turnouts of Republicans that have been better than we’ve had in recent years,” said Matheson, the northwest director for Axiom Strategies. “It’s not so much Trump, it’s what the politicians around Seattle have done, including defunding the police. Just the unlawfulness and the inability to prosecute crimes is changing the narrative in the suburbs. It’s a whole different environment than it was in January.”
If Portland was beneficial for Trump’s catering to his base, it was also the city that proved more poignantly than anywhere the limitations of his law-and-order appeal. His agents were met there by a “wall of moms,” a nod to the suburban support that has he has shed since 2016 and failed to recover.
But Jim Brulte, a former California Republican Party chair and longtime legislative leader, said, “I don’t remember a presidential election where Portland basically had riots for 90 days before the election.”
For Trump, he said, “I think it’s a legitimate touchstone, and the fact of the matter is these are cities that are controlled by liberals and their ideology has, in part, led to this.”
None of the disputes in the West will matter for the purposes of the presidential election on the West Coast. The last Republican to carry California in a presidential election was George H.W. Bush in 1988, and Oregon and Washington haven’t gone Republican since Ronald Reagan in 1984.
Only one of four debates this fall is in the West, and that is the vice presidential debate, in Salt Lake City, far from the coast. Harris is from California. But before Tuesday, she had not been home since early spring, before the coronavirus pandemic broke out. Still, rarely has the West Coast drawn as much attention in a presidential campaign.
“Abnormally for California, we are a part of the national conversation in the presidential campaign,” said Doug Herman, a California-based Democratic strategist. “Normally, California is mentioned to denigrate Hollywood celebrities and, ‘We went to California to raise money.’”
On issues of climate, West Coast politicians have felt a shift in the landscape in recent weeks. Though the region has long dominated the climate debate — dispatching then-California Gov. Jerry Brown and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to global summits during the Trump era — the region has struggled to make an imprint in an American media ecosystem dominated by Washington and New York.
“Geography still matters and the center of communications are on the East Coast, not the West Coast, and that has an inclination on how people, including in the media, view the significance of issues. It’s a human trait. We certainly understand it,” Inslee, who made climate change a central platform of his primary run for president, acknowledged in an interview.
But he said the impact of the fires, which have roared onto newspaper front pages across America, will resonate this time and that Republicans will begin coming around to the magnitude of the challenge. “I am hopeful that when Trump goes to his reward that there will be some folks in the Republican Party who will show some leadership on this subject.”
Five years ago, on the eve of a Republican presidential primary debate in California, Brown had all but begged the candidates, including Trump, to address climate change, telling reporters: “My message is real clear: California’s burning. What the hell are you going to do about it?”
The answer, it turned out, was not much. But now, Brown said Monday, “There’s been more print on climate change in the last month than in the last few years, and that’s a byproduct of the suffering, the destruction and the deaths that people are seeing in California. So, this is a cause of awakening.”
Brown said, “The fires are graphically portraying the damage that occurs when the environment is disrupted.”