LOS ANGELES — Wherever he goes, Tom Del Beccaro asks California voters which they would prefer: high-speed rail or more water. Invariably, the answer is the same.
“Everybody says water,” said Mr. Del Beccaro, a Republican who’s running for the Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Barbara Boxer in 2016. “I think every dime that exists should be allocated there. [But] we are spending more than 15 times the amount on a train than we are on new water.
“In my speeches, I also ask people to raise their hand if they think we have a train crisis,” he adds.
Republicans have endured a decadeslong dry spell in California politics, but a third year of severe drought, coupled with Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown’s mandatory water restrictions and the ensuing fines, has emerged as a potential game changer for the 2016 election.
The biggest prize is the Senate seat up for grabs with the retirement of Ms. Boxer after 24 years. Already, Republican candidates are hitting hard on what they describe as the Democrats’ years of inaction on water storage, arguing that the party’s kowtowing to environmental interests has left the state with no choice but to tighten the spigot at homes and farms.
“Jerry Brown doesn’t reflect the concerns of the state; he doesn’t reflect the concerns of the San Joaquin Valley. He reflects the environmental concerns,” said Republican state Assemblyman Rocky Chavez, who’s also seeking the Senate seat.
The former deputy mayor of Oceanside, Mr. Chavez says two issues dominate his conversations with voters on the campaign trail — global terrorism spawned by the Islamic State and the drought.
“It’s a huge issue with the voters. I’ve seen it,” Mr. Chavez said. “Everyone around the state is talking about water all the time.”
So far Mr. Chavez and Mr. Del Beccaro, a former California Republican Party chairman, are the only two announced GOP candidates for the Senate. Both have joined the growing Republican call to fast track the completion of water storage projects in a state that has not built a dam since 1979, thanks in large part to opposition from environmentalist groups.
“There is an anger level rising in this state over the water issue,” said Mr. Del Beccaro, a columnist who’s combining his campaign activities with a book tour for “The Divided Era,” which was released Tuesday by Greenleaf Book Group Press.
“The state has not done anything significant to increase water supply in three decades. At the same time, the state has grown substantially,” he said. “I don’t specialize in math, but if there’s not enough water today for the people who are here, and they expect 17 million more in the next 20 years, a rational person would say ‘we have to do something about this.’”
Natural disasters have a history of bedeviling politicians — President George W. Bush was dogged by his perceived slow response in 2005 to Hurricane Katrina. But even with the drought, California Republicans face an uphill battle in a state where their voter registration has dipped to under 30 percent.
The favorite to succeed Ms. Boxer is Democratic Attorney General Kamala Harris, who has raised more than any other candidate at $2.3 million, although her road became a little rougher last week with Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez’s entry into the race.
Democrats have their own thoughts about who’s culpable, starting with the agriculture industry. Although farmers argue that they have borne the brunt of drought-related water restrictions, Assembly Democrats urged the governor in an April 28 letter to make the industry use less water.
“Agriculture uses much of the water in the state,” the letter says. “It can — and should — do more during the drought.”
The state’s billion-dollar farming industry soaks up about 41 percent of the state’s total water supply but 80 percent of the water used by humans. Fully 48 percent of the total water goes for environmental purposes such as protecting the endangered Delta smelt, according to the California Department of Water Resources.
Democrats are also quick to point the finger at climate change. In their letter, Assembly Democrats said the state needs to prepare for the “new normal” given that “under climate change, droughts like [what] California is currently experiencing are likely to become much more the norm than the extreme.”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said in a December report that natural variability was responsible for the three-year drought, not human-caused global warming, but that didn’t stop Ms. Harris from mocking skeptics at this month’s California Democratic Party annual convention.
“Are you kidding me?” she said in a May 17 article in The Sacramento Bee. “With the worst drought in history, what more evidence do they need?”
Democrats have called for solving the drought crisis through education and enhanced conservation measures such as Mr. Brown’s mandatory water restrictions, aimed at reducing residential usage by 25 percent. Starting June 1, many of the state’s water purveyors plan to impose fines and other penalties for excess water use.
For example, California Water Service in San Jose, which serves 473,000 customers, plans to enact a surcharge for those who exceed their monthly “water budget.” In Bakersfield, that represents a 32 percent cut in their water usage from the corresponding month in 2013, according to the Bakersfield Californian.
Those caught wasting water by, say, running their sprinklers too often or on the wrong day will be hit with a $50 fine for the second offense. With a fifth offense, they risk having their water cut off entirely.
As those penalties accumulate, Mr. Del Beccaro predicts residents may well start resenting Democrats, who have long dominated California politics, for failing to build the dams and reservoirs needed to keep up with water demand.
“It isn’t like they [Democrats] came to us and said, ‘Let’s get through this together.’ It’s, ‘No, I’m going to fine you. You need to give up your American dream with your little lawn. Oh, and I don’t have a plan,’” Mr. Del Beccaro said. “I don’t think that’s going to cut it. And I think there’s traction to be had there.”
Not necessarily, says longtime Democratic strategist Darry Sragow, who doubts that scapegoating Democrats for the water shortage will register with the voters.
“That’s not going to get them very far. It’s inconceivable to me that California voters are going to blame either party for the drought,” said Mr. Sragow, a Los Angeles-based lawyer. “If we’re talking about rank-and-file Californians, they know there’s a drought. They know that everybody’s going to have to deal with the drought. They’re not angry, they understand this is a result of acts of nature. And the one thing they want is political leadership to tackle the drought, and they’re getting that from our governor now.”
Mr. Brown supported the state bond measure passed by voters in November that allots $2.7 billion for water projects. On the other hand, his enthusiasm for a $68 billion high-speed rail line from Los Angeles to San Francisco, which polls show most voters oppose, has handed Republicans a ready-made sound bite.
A group called DamTrain, started by Fresno City Councilman Steve Brandau and the Taxpayers Association of the Central Valley, recently erected two billboards along Highway 99 in Fresno with the message, “Governor put our Water BEFORE your Train!”
The message “resonates because it is undeniably true that the Governor’s priorities are upside down,” said Republican Assemblywoman Shannon Grove on Facebook.
Legislative Democrats have come under fire for refusing in April to speed up the environmental review process for two Central Valley reservoirs, even though the state has recently fast-tracked the process for NFL, NHL and NBA arenas.
“We fast-tracked a stadium in Sacramento without an environmental review, but for some reason they don’t want to do anything about water, which makes no sense at all,” said Mr. Chavez.
At the same time, blasting Democrats may not be enough to boost Republicans unless they have a plan themselves, said Jack Pitney, government professor at Claremont McKenna College.
“They can talk about what should have happened five, 10, 20 years ago. The question is, do they have any concrete proposals on what to do now?” Mr. Pitney said. “If they do, that’s something else entirely. Saying that we should have built greater storage capability 10, 15 years ago is a valid point, but they have to deal with Kamala Harris today.”
As it turns out, the Republican Senate candidates are promoting ideas for technological solutions to go along with more water storage. Mr. Del Beccaro wants to take a page from the successful Singapore model of treating reclaimed water, known as “new water,” while Mr. Chavez cites the move toward desalination, starting with the $1 billion plant nearing completion in Carlsbad.
But coming up with solutions is only half the battle, says Mr. Chavez.
“We know what to do,” he said. “We just don’t have the political will to do it.”