LOS ANGELES (AP) — The California Republican Party voted overwhelmingly Saturday not to endorse any candidate in the looming recall election that could remove Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom from office, sidestepping a potentially nasty fight over a GOP favorite that threatened to divide Republicans and depress turnout in the nationally watched race.

The lopsided vote to skip an endorsement — supported by about 90% of delegates attending at a virtual party meeting — reflected concerns that an internal feud among candidates and their supporters would cleave party ranks and sour Republicans who wouldn’t bother to vote if their candidate of choice was snubbed.

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There are 24 Republicans on the recall ballot, with leading contenders including talk radio host Larry Elder, former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer, businessman John Cox, state legislator Kevin Kiley, former Olympian and reality TV personality Caitlyn Jenner and former congressman Doug Ose.

Two of the state party’s most powerful figures –- Republican National Committee members Harmeet Dhillon and Shawn Steel -– earlier helped set the stage for an endorsement vote. But they reversed course Friday and urged delegates to avoid it.

“The polls are showing that the recall is in a statistical tie, and we cannot afford to discourage voters who are passionate about a particular candidate, yet may not vote because their favored candidate didn’t receive the endorsement,” they warned in an email obtained by The Associated Press.

In the recall election, voters will be asked two questions: First, should Newsom be removed, yes or no? The second question will be a list of replacement candidates from which to choose. If a majority votes for Newsom’s removal, the candidate who gets the most votes on the second question becomes governor.

Republicans feared that fallout from an endorsement squabble could sap support from the critical first question on the ballot – whether or not to remove Newsom. If that vote fails to reach a majority, the results on the second question are irrelevant and the governor retains his job.

The party’s decision was not without risk. Republican voter registration in the heavily Democratic state is a paltry 24%. Some party leaders believed the best route to victory in the Sept. 14 election was concentrating the GOP’s money and volunteers behind a single candidate.

Kevin Faulconer, a Republican candidate for California governor, speaks during a news conference. (AP Photo/Michael R. Blood, File)

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Some will see the decision as a setback for Faulconer, who was considered an early favorite for the endorsement. Faulconer had been seeking the nod, but his campaign later shifted gears, saying he no longer believed it was in the party’s interest to back a single candidate.

Cox, a conservative, earlier accused party insiders of trying to steer the endorsement to Faulconer, a political centrist elected in Democratic San Diego who some saw as a more viable statewide candidate in strongly Democratic California . Cox, in protest of what he viewed as a rigged process, said he wouldn’t seek the endorsement.

In this May 11, 2021, file photo California gubernatorial candidate John Cox speaks in front of his Kodiak bear at a campaign event held on Shelter Island in San Diego. Cox was the Republican nominee for governor in 2018 and lost to Newsom in a landslide. This time around the multimillionaire businessman has displayed a showman’s instincts. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy, File)

In a statement Saturday, Cox praised the delegates’ decision, adding that “the Republican Party must be united to recall Gavin Newsom. Nothing is more important.”

Kiley said in a statement that “all candidates are on the same team as we make the case that California deserves so much better than Gavin Newsom.”

Newsom, meanwhile, has been stepping up his campaign activity with polls showing the race could go either way, as coronavirus cases again climb and populous areas of the state bring back mask rules loathed by many.

The recall grew out of widespread frustration during the depths of the pandemic over whipsaw stay-at-home orders, crushing job losses from business closures and long-running school closures that together upended life for millions of Californians.

Republican candidates have depicted Newsom as an incompetent fop whose bungled leadership inflicted unnecessary financial pain during the pandemic. Democrats have sought to frame the contest as driven by far-right extremists and supporters of former President Donald Trump.

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