Brian Dahle, the Republican candidate for California governor, kept getting pings on his cellphone.
Dahle needed to figure out how to get his name out there, longtime friend Greg Hawes texted. From the seat of a tractor on his Shasta County farm, Hawes drummed up ideas.
Maybe they could get a celebrity to talk up Dahle? But Hawes didn't have any movie stars' cellphone numbers. Maybe they could get on TV? But Dahle's campaign didn't have enough money.
Then, inspiration struck. Working by hand, knocking stalks down one by one, Hawes and his family spent three days carving Dahle's face into an eight-acre corn maze this year.
The maze, viewable from the air, is unlikely to make a huge dent in the election results. But Hawes remains a believer.
"It's really just about getting people to know him — getting 20 million other people to know him," said Hawes, 57.
A month before election day, that remains a daunting task for Dahle, a state senator and seed farmer from the town of Bieber, population 266 or so, who is trying to unseat Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom in the nation's most populous state.
Dahle's family-run campaign has raised just more than $2 million. Newsom, as of late September, sat on a reelection campaign fund with more than $23 million on hand.
Dahle has been crisscrossing the Golden State by plane and his 10-year-old Ford F-150, stumping at county fairs and Farm Bureau luncheons. Newsom ran his first reelection ad on TV in Florida and has been making appearances in Texas and New York, fueling speculation that he might run for president.
Dahle's supporters have been planting yard signs in the grass along the 5 Freeway in Northern California. Newsom used campaign money to buy billboards last month in seven Republican-led states with the most restrictive abortion bans, touting California's publicly funded website with information on how to end a pregnancy.
"Gavin Newsom wants to be president. He's out there talking about it," Dahle told supporters at a fundraising dinner late last month at Hawes' farm outside Redding. "He's not focused on this race, and we're going to come in from the backside, with God's help, and we're going to win."
Polls show that would indeed take divine intervention in this liberal state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1.
Newsom has the backing of 53% of likely California voters, compared with 32% who favor Dahle, according to a poll released this month by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies and co-sponsored by The Times.
Emboldened by his landslide victory in the GOP-led recall election last year, Newsom has gone national, touting California as a refuge from red-state policies such as bans on medical treatment for transgender youths.
Newsom is so confident, in fact, that he’s using $5 million in campaign funds to air ads supporting Proposition 1, a proposed amendment to the California Constitution that will explicitly protect the right to abortion in the state.
Because a majority of California voters support abortion rights, those ads will likely benefit Newsom’s reelection bid as well.
Nathan Click, a spokesman for Newsom's campaign, said the governor is "not taking anything for granted" in this election but is feeling confident after "Republicans failed miserably" in trying to oust him in an off-cycle special election.
Click said Newsom is "going on the offensive around the country" because the state and national GOP are "trying to take away people's rights."
Dahle, he said, "is right there with them."
Newsom has insisted that the White House is not in his sights. But the immaculately coiffed governor nonetheless challenged Ron DeSantis, his Republican counterpart in Florida, to a debate, tweeting last month: "I’ll bring my hair gel. You bring your hairspray. Name the time before Election Day."
Newsom and Dahle will have a single debate on KQED radio on Oct. 23.
California Republican Party Chairwoman Jessica Millan Patterson said that Newsom "has this fixation on what is going on in these red states." Voters here care more about issues in their own backyard: record-high gas prices, inflation, crime and schools, she said.
Red states like Texas and Florida, she noted, "are places that are gaining population and gaining congressional seats, while California lost a congressional seat."
Republicans have not won a California statewide election since 2006, the year Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger won reelection and Steve Poizner became insurance commissioner.
"Dahle's a businessman. He's a farmer. And he's had to deal with some very real challenges that many Californians have faced," Patterson said. "He's not someone who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth."
The comparatively quiet gubernatorial race stands in stark contrast to the recall election, an expensive, headline-grabbing spectacle that drew 46 candidates, including conservative talk show host Larry Elder and reality-TV star Caitlyn Jenner. Businessman John Cox campaigned with a 1,000-pound Kodiak bear.
Elder — a Black Republican who has denied the existence of systemic anti-Black racism, made derogatory remarks about women and once called former President Trump "almost God-sent" — emerged as the perfect foil for Newsom.
Elder grabbed headlines. Dahle, for the most part, does not.
"People say to me, 'You've got to do something wild, something crazy.' And that's just not who I am," Dahle said.
The 57-year-old Republican served 16 years on the Lassen County Board of Supervisors before being elected to the California Legislature in 2012.
In Sacramento, he has earned a reputation for working with colleagues across the aisle. He and his wife, state Assemblymember Megan Dahle, have hosted more than 100 legislators from both major parties at their home in Bieber.
Sitting in his F-150 at Hawes' farm, Dahle said he is in the race, despite the odds, to give voters the option of a conservative with actual legislative experience. He called it a "family decision" to run.
In Dahle's absence, son Chase, 22, takes care of the farm, where they grow wheat, barley, oats and other grains. Son Reagan, 20, took a semester off from college to help manage the campaign. Megan Dahle is running for reelection to the state Assembly, and the couple attend volleyball games for their daughter, Roslyn, 12, between campaign stops.
The family established roots in California during the Great Depression when Dahle's grandfather was awarded an 80-acre land grant in Tulelake, near the Oregon border. In 1942, the World War I veteran bought additional land outside Bieber for what is still the present-day Dahle farm.
"We've been here 92 years. ... We're the Californians that aren't leaving. Amen. We're going to stay and fight," Dahle told supporters at the fundraising dinner at Hawes' farm.
In Dahle's home county of Lassen, 84% of voters supported the recall — the highest percentage in the state.
But statewide, a Republican — even a moderate one like Dahle — is a tough sell in liberal California.
Last September, after the recall, Dahle asked a political consultant if he could beat Newsom. The consultant told him no.
It's like he was predicting the future, Dahle said.
As governor, Dahle said he would push to drill for more oil to bring gas prices down. He would seek to build more charging stations for electric cars and said he believes the state's ban on the sale of new gas-powered cars by 2035 is unrealistic, given the fragility of the existing electric grid.
To combat crime, he said, he wants to fully fund law enforcement and appoint a parole board that would not allow the early release of violent or repeat offenders.
He said he is "pro-life" but that, with Proposition 1 on the ballot in November, California voters — not the governor — will decide whether to enshrine the right to abortion in the state constitution.
He will vote no. But, he said, "I'm not going to go to you and say, 'It's my way or no way.'"
Even here on his rural home turf, it's not immediately obvious that Dahle is running for the state's highest office. His campaign signs are outnumbered by those for Republican Congressman Doug LaMalfa declaring: "Water. Jobs. Liberty."
At the Big Valley Market in Bieber, where a Dahle sign hung on the front door late last month, Bonnie Davis said from behind the counter that "everyone here is tired of Gruesome Newsom" and California's high taxes and expensive gasoline.
The Dahles "are locals" who come into the market all the time and know just about everyone, said Davis, 64.
"I just hope some miracle happens and he gets it," she said of Dahle.
Eighteen miles west on Highway 299, the McArthur Farm Supply store used its marquee this year to tout Dahle's campaign website and encourage people to donate $1 a day. "Let's make him our new governor," it read.
Late last month, the politics were gone. The sign quipped: "The weather just went from 90 to 55 like it saw a highway patrol."
Josh Button, who takes care of fencing, plumbing and hardware at the store, goes to church with the Dahles and said they're humble people.
"They don’t talk a lot about politics at church, though people talk about whether this is God’s calling for him to do this," Button said. "They keep it pretty low-key. Everyone knows them and what they do."
At his farm in Anderson, Greg Hawes said he got some criticism about his corn maze from people who said he got too political by making it into Dahle's face.
"He's just a good guy. I don't think of him as a politician at all," said Hawes, a fifth-generation farmer working on land his family bought in 1863.
He noted that he once carved the face of soccer star Megan Rapinoe, who is from Redding, into the corn maze, earning the farm a shoutout from then-President Obama.
At the fundraiser, longtime friends and locals wrote out donations to the Dahle campaign at picnic tables covered with red-and-white checkered tablecloths.
There, Ginne Mistal, 76, said she instructed her children and grandchildren, who live in Orange County, to put pro-Dahle bumper stickers on their cars so city dwellers get to know his name.
As a realtor, she has helped pinpoint properties along the 5 Freeway, going south toward Sacramento, where signs could be planted. When Dahle first ran for state Assembly in 2012, Mistal let him use a building she owned in Redding for his first campaign office.
"When he ran for Assembly, I said to him, you need to be our governor. He said, 'Ginne, I don’t have the money to do that.' And look at today. He’s here,” Mistal said.
“The first time I met Brian, I knew that I would do anything for him, because he’s so genuine," she said.
Lisa Andreatta, a third-generation Northern Californian, said she was supporting Dahle because one of her worst fears came true last year. Her son and two grandkids — generations four and five — left California.
The state got too expensive, and the schools were closed for too long amid the COVID-19 pandemic. She blames Newsom.
Her son traded two acres in Grass Valley for 40 acres in Colorado. Now, Andreatta, of Shasta County, drives 34 hours round trip to see him a few times a year.
She said Newsom does not appear to be taking the contest seriously, even though Californians are facing real problems.
"Even if he wins, will he be in California making policy or helping us with solutions?" she asked. "No, he's going to be gone, running for president. It's a slap in the face."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.