Little Drama, But Odd Plots, in Calif. Race for Governor

Little Drama, But Odd Plots, in Calif. Race for Governor
Aric Crabb/San Jose Mercury News-Bay Area News Group via AP
Little Drama, But Odd Plots, in Calif. Race for Governor
Aric Crabb/San Jose Mercury News-Bay Area News Group via AP
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This is the week things got serious in California. June primary absentee ballots (in California parlance, “vote by mail”) arrived in homes across the Golden State, just days after the official voter information guide. Though the actual vote isn’t for another four Tuesdays, political ads now flood the local airwaves.

And the men and women who would be the next governor of California? Six of them met Tuesday night in San Jose for the season’s final scheduled debate. The funny thing about California in the grander scheme of the 2018 midterm vote: It’s about everything and nothing.

Take California’s U.S. Senate race, for example. Dianne Feinstein should cruise to re-election for a fifth time. (If it’s drama and a horse race you seek, head over to neighboring Arizona or Nevada.) The opposite dynamic is present in the House races. Most credible scenarios that have Democrats taking back that lower chamber of Congress entail flipping up to half of the 14 districts currently occupied by California Republicans.

As for the state’s gubernatorial race, it doesn’t threaten to tip the scales of national power. Races in Ohio and Florida, for example, will have far more impact on redistricting and the next presidential election. Still, California’s race for governor offers several intriguing subplots. Among them are the following:

“Open” Chaos at Last. 2018 marks the fourth election cycle to feature an “open” primary in which the top-two finishers advance to the general election regardless of party affiliation. Unlike the past three cycles, both parties are engaged in competitive battles. That has led to some creative politicking.

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the Democratic frontrunner and overall poll leader, has run an attack ad against John Cox, a San Diego businessman and frontrunner on the Republican side. Why? Because the wrath of an outspoken progressive like Newsom potentially could boost Cox’s standing with the state GOP’s conservative base, elevate him to second place, and thus fulfill Newsom’s oft-stated desire to face a Republican in the fall. (In California, Democrats enjoy a 19 percentage-point advantage in voter registration; the last Republican to win an open-seat gubernatorial race, Pete Wilson, did so in 1990.)

In an ordinary one-party primary, one might expect Newson’s chief Democratic rival, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, to lay into the frontrunner. Instead, because finishing second overall is a ticket to November, ads run either by Villaraigosa or a deep-pocket independent effort on his behalf (Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has chipped in $7 million) have been short on vitriol and long on pathos.

Television Is Still King. About those ads: They’re a boost to local-TV revenue; in California, you can’t escape them morning, noon or night. As such, it reaffirms how California campaigns have been waged since the advent of the Television Age – albeit, with a twist.

Traditionally, California statewide candidates have restrained their media budgets until shortly before Primary Day. That’s a testament both to the electorate’s famously limited attention span and the high cost of doing business in California’s media markets. (One week’s worth of an aggressive television buy covering the entire state runs at least $2 million).

Changing voting habits have altered that approach. In California’s last gubernatorial election, nearly 70 percent of all primary ballots cast were vote-by-mail. Back in 1990, the year of the last GOP open-seat win, voting-by-mail constituted only 15 percent of the primary electorate. If television networks abide by “sweeps month” to measure viewer ratings and set ad rates, then California candidates now have to think along the same lines, with voters making their choices weeks (not days or hours) before election deadlines.

It’s Good to Be the King Prince. Years ago, a pair of California ex-journalists dubbed Newsom “Prince Gavin” for his enviable standing as heir-apparent to the California throne.

Newsom does have a strong chance of becoming California’s 40th governor. But it’s not because he was sprung from Jerry Brown’s loins. The two have a prickly relationship complicated by generational and policy gaps. Newsom is 30 years younger than the man he hopes to succeed; his politics run decidedly to the left of Brown’s vaunted “canoe theory” of paddling alternately left and right in the mainstream.

Newsom achieved his frontrunner status not by heredity but sweat equity – outflanking and outworking the field. Newsom entered the contest in February 2015, 21 months ahead of Villaraigosa. He dominates the primary field monetarily, lined up key endorsements (for California Democrats, that means organized labor, most particularly the state’s public  employee unions), and has made the most of a job whose title sounds impressive but which carries little in the way of impact or actual responsibilities.

The grizzly bear on Newsom’s campaign logo points east, the opposite direction of the ursine figure on the California state flag – and that may not be an accident. Newsom is eloquent on the stump, has civil rights bona fides (as mayor of San Francisco, he defied existing law by issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples) and comes out of Democratic presidential central casting. (The last four non-incumbent Democratic winners averaged 47 years of age, with each the father of infants or tweens; Newsom turns 51 in October and is co-parenting four youngsters.)

What works against a 2020 Newsom presidential run? Timing. Assuming office in January 2019, he’d have to catch the first plane to Iowa . . . only to find that a pair of fellow California Democrats – Sen. Kamala Harris and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti – beat him to the steak fries, town halls and coffee klatches.  

But Not So Good to Be a Republican. The California GOP held its spring convention in San Diego last weekend. Delegates were unable to come to a supermajority consensus on a gubernatorial candidate to endorse.

The significance of that inaction is debatable. Receiving the party’s seal of approval could have lifted the fortunes of Cox or Assemblyman Travis Allen, the other principal Republican in the gubernatorial contest. However, voting guides have already been published and mailed, so there’s a question of real impact beyond the better-informed party faithful.

What the California GOP faces in 2018 is some dubious history. If a Republican fails to make the top two in either the gubernatorial or Senate race, it will mark the first time since 1914 that a major party was shut out in both contests in the Golden State.

Such a contest might prompt some party soul-searching. It might also inspire pro-Republican independent groups to act a little more sensibly – for example, this pro-Cox “Restore Our Values” ad that castigates Newsom and Villaraigosa for past sexual indiscretions.

Let’s put it another way: In the age of Trump, do California Republicans really want a referendum on sexual morality?

Trump Is Not on the Ballot, But He’s in the Mix. Speaking of the current occupant of the White House, this year’s Democratic candidates are campaigning as though he’s the Republican they are running against.

State Attorney General Xavier Becerra, seeking another four years in Sacramento, has this ad promising to “stop Donald Trump in his tracks.” (“When Donald Trump targets immigrants, when he picks on people because they’re different, it’s personal.”)

Asif Mahmood, a Democratic candidate for state insurance commissioner, vows on his website’s “issues” page: “As a Muslim immigrant from this great blue state of California, I’m a triple threat to Donald Trump. I’m going to make him listen to the voices of all those people he is trying to silence.”

Further down the ballot, State Assemblyman Tony Thurmond, a Democratic candidate for state superintendent of public instruction, is running an ad denouncing Trump’s “anti-education agenda.” Secretary of State Alex Padilla reminds visitors to his campaign’s website: “As California Secretary of State, I have consistently pushed back on Trump’s baseless allegations of massive voter fraud.”

It's more oddity about this year’s election in California. California Democrats loathe Donald Trump, the president. But they love Trump, the piñata.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow who follows California and national politics, and host of Hoover’s “Area 45” podcast on the Trump presidency. He can be reached at


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