With bigger battles to fight in November, first-term Democratic incumbent Dave Jones comfortably placed first in Tuesday's, low-key primary election for state insurance commissioner.
Republican Ted Gaines, an insurance broker and state senator, came in second, and the two former lawmakers automatically qualified for a November rematch under California's new "top-two" election system.
In Tuesday's race, Democrat Jones got 53.1% of the vote; Gaines was next with 41.6%, and Peace and Freedom candidate Nathalie Hrizi finished third with 5.3%.
Jones, Gaines and other political players expect the race to heat up in the fall as voters also confront a ballot initiative that could hand the next insurance commissioner vast new regulatory powers over health insurance rates.
Health insurers have already contributed tens of millions of dollars to fight the measure. It would authorize the commissioner to reject health insurance rates deemed "excessive."
Gaines opposes the proposal, and Jones supports it. In fact, such a change in state law has topped Jones' legislative agenda since 2004 during his two terms in the Assembly and then at the California Department of Insurance.
All four Jones efforts to pass bills failed after running into staunch opposition from health insurers, doctors, hospitals and a number of other critics.
Jones, 52, of Sacramento, said he plans to keep his reelection campaign separate from his barnstorming for the ballot measure. The initiative, he stressed, is aimed at limiting "the unfettered ability" of heath insurers "to jack up the rates at the expense of families and businesses."
Jones wants the same approve-or-deny authority over health insurance premiums that he now has for auto, property and casualty rates.
Gaines, 56, of Rocklin, denounces the initiative as unneeded government regulation that stifles competition in the insurance market. He also would like to see President Obama's Affordable Care Act repealed or overhauled, although he concedes that the state insurance commissioner has little to do with the controversial law.
For their part, health insurers and a broad coalition of other opponents said their fall campaign won't be about Jones. "Our ads will show the impact on consumers, not Dave Jones," said spokeswoman Robin Swanson. Her clients' main message, she said, will be that rate regulation would spur higher healthcare costs and give "one politician unprecedented power."
Regardless of the November outcome, California's next insurance commissioner will have plenty to do once the brewing initiative contest is over.
The elected commissioner runs one of the state government's largest bureaucracies. With 1,300 people, the Department of Insurance licenses, regulates and examines the financial strength of insurance companies; deals with public complaints and questions about the industry; and enforces state insurance laws and regulations.
Both Jones and Gaines have pledged to use their post to help consumers. Jones said he's shaved billions of dollars off of proposed insurance company rate hikes in the last four years. Gaines said he would use his experience owning a family-run, independent insurance brokerage in the Sacramento suburbs to make sure that policyholders are getting the best coverage for their premium dollars.
Both candidates ran relatively low-key primary campaigns and appear to be saving resources for the general election battle. As of May 14, Jones reported receiving $1.6 million in campaign contributions, while Gaines took in just $94,000, according to Maplight.org, an online tracking service.