Bill Essayli, a Republican candidate for assembly, stands in a hotel ballroom
Bill Essayli, Republican candidate for Assembly

Bill Essayli says his candidacy “destroys the Democrat Party’s narrative.”

That’s not because of his policy positions, though his campaign against Riverside Democratic Assemblywoman Sabrina Cervantes is built around his opposition to the recent increase in California’s gas tax.

It’s also not because he’s 32, though the state’s Grand Old Party, which has assembled in San Diego this weekend for its spring convention, might benefit from some young blood.

It’s because he’s a Muslim American. Or as he likes to put it, an American Muslim. As the only candidate running against Cervantes, a fellow millennial, he’s guaranteed to face her in the November general election. If he wins then, he will be, he says, the first Muslim Assembly member in California history. And a Republican, no less.

“I’m not running as a Muslim candidate,” he told an early-bird crowd gathered Saturday to hear from the “New Voices of the Republican Party” over breakfast. “My religion drives my moral compass, but it’s not everything that I am. I’m an American that happens to be Muslim.”

Instead, Essayli, who represents one of the California Republican Party’s most likely pick-up opportunities in this year’s legislative races, is running largely as an opponent of the gas tax. He’s not alone. As California’s opposition party prepares for what many analysts predict will be punishing national midterm elections—with Democrats expected to turn out in force against an unpopular president—the state GOP is doing its best to keep things local.

The media “likes to talk about Trump,” says Essayli, who declined to say whether he voted for the president but supports most of his policies. “But I’m not running for president. I’m running for [Assembly of] California, and I do think these issues affect us more than anything Trump says or tweets about.”

Namely, he’s focused on repealing the increase in car and gasoline taxes that state lawmakers passed last year to provide an additional $5.2 billion for road repairs and transportation infrastructure. Essayli, a former federal prosecutor, also wants to roll back some of the state’s recent changes in criminal-justice as well its “sanctuary” policy, which limits local and state law-enforcement agencies’ cooperation with federal immigration authorities.

An Essayli campaign sign highlighting Assemblyman Sabrina Cervantes’ support of last year’s gas-tax increase.

Those two lines of attack have been consistent at the weekend’s convention. After the breakfast, party members convened at two policy meetings, one focused on the politics of repealing the gas tax and the other on legal issues related to sanctuary laws.

“The Democrats have served us two wonderful issues,” said San Diego Republican Party Chairman Tony Krvaric, who is playing host this weekend. “I’m telling every candidate: When you run for office, you should come out—and you’ll be on the right side of the majority of voters—with ‘repeal the gas tax’ and ‘oppose the sanctuary state.’ ”

That appears to be the party’s strategy to defend vulnerable congressional seats, keep the Democrats from reclaiming a supermajority in the state Legislature and make even a halfway plausible play for governor. But Essayli says focusing on local and state issues that affect voters’ pocketbooks is the secret to the party’s longterm appeal.

“Millennials, more than anyone, don’t have brand loyalty,” he said. “I don’t think they are going to be beholden to any party if there is a compelling alternative.”

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Ben covers housing policy and previously covered California politics and elections. Prior to these roles at CalMatters, he was a contributing writer for CalMatters reporting on the state's economy and...