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Trump and taxes will dominate the governor's race for the next five months

Trump and taxes will dominate the governor's race for the next five months
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gavin Newsom, left, and Republican counterpart John Cox. (Los Angeles Times / Los Angeles Times)

Gavin Newsom and John Cox see eye-to-eye on very little — and Californians can expect to hear plenty about those disagreements from now until November.

With the contours of the gubernatorial election exactly five months from now set as a matchup between Newsom, the Democratic lieutenant governor and former mayor of San Francisco, and Cox, the Republican businessman based in Rancho Santa Fe, voters are in for a partisan battle that will litigate the state’s recent gas tax — now under siege by a repeal effort — and competing visions of how to address California’s high cost of living.

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And above all, Donald Trump, whose polarizing presidency has turned nearly every electoral contest into a referendum on the current administration.

“He’s changed politics in this country,” Newsom told The Times this week. “Politics in this state, politics in every state, politics in every congressional race. I’d argue every city council race, every mayor’s race, certainly the governor’s race.”

Newsom has been an eager and vocal critic of the president, frequently goading him on social media. By drawing a Republican opponent, Newsom predicted he would seize “the ability to contrast that and have a substantive policy conversation around that contrast, those differences, our values and what’s at stake, and their values and Trump.”

Sure enough, while Newsom did not mention Cox by name in his election night speech on Tuesday, he pointedly jabbed his opponent as “a foot soldier in [Trump’s] war on California.”

Trump’s endorsement of Cox several weeks before election day — and reiterated several times on Twitter — helped the gubernatorial hopeful consolidate support among Republican voters, with whom the president remains popular, and propelled him into the second-place finish ahead of several Democrats who once seemed poised to claim a spot in the general election. Cox often touted the support and drew parallels between Trump’s resume and his own.

“He endorsed me because he knows I’m a businessman who can get results just like he’s done — improving the economy, affordability, lower taxes,” Cox said in an interview.

But Trump may prove to be more of a detriment as Cox seeks to boost his appeal beyond the GOP faithful. The party’s voter registration now ranks below those registered as independents, and Californians have not elected a Republican to statewide office in more than a decade. Trump, also, is widely unpopular among California voters.

Cox has repeatedly said on the trail that while he supports Trump, “I am my own man.” Aside from not voting for the president in 2016, he has not articulated any major break from Trump and has aligned himself with the administration’s stance against illegal immigration and the “sanctuary” efforts in California to limit cooperation with federal immigration officials.

A central plank of Cox’s candidacy with perhaps broader appeal is the effort to end the gas tax, which was passed last year. A repeal measure is poised to qualify for the November ballot soon, and the successful recall of a Democratic lawmaker who voted for the tax hike on Tuesday augurs trouble for the tax’s future.

A USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll in May found 51% of registered voters in the state favored repealing the taxes and fees from last year’s legislation, which would raise money to repair roads and bridges, and improve mass transit. The survey indicated that abolishing the tax hike has resonance beyond the state’s Republican diehards.

Cox, who often touts his involvement in the repeal measure, has used the gas tax as a springboard into a larger debate about taxes, a time-tested GOP campaign staple.

Newsom “wants to double the income tax, he wants to increase property taxes and he wants to make sure that we don’t repeal this gas tax,” Cox said in an interview on Fox News on Wednesday. “I say the people of this state have been taxed enough. They’re going to rebel. And we’re going to lead that revolt here.”

While Newsom has backed pricey government programs such as single-payer healthcare, he has not made specific proposals on how to pay for such plans and has not called for hikes in income or property taxes. A Cox spokesman did not respond to a question about what the candidate was referring to in his appearance.

Newsom did say he plans on leaning into the gas tax debate and will defend the money it will raise for roads, despite the issue’s unpopularity in the polls.

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“I’m going to try to shape that conversation, make a strong and vigorous case for it,” he said. “They want to demagogue it, they want to act like somehow money is just going to fall from the trees and you can repeal it and somehow all the streets will be repaved with gold. That’s just gobbledygook nonsense.”

Cox and Newsom do agree on one thing: California has become an increasingly unaffordable place to live. Both men took time in their election night speeches to lament those who cannot afford “a roof over their heads” and vow to address the state’s high poverty rate.

Their prescriptions for reining in the cost of living differ wildly. Newsom has proposed guaranteed universal healthcare, increased state money for housing and a “cradle-to-college” array of government services for the state’s youth.

Cox opposes single-payer healthcare and has called for more market-driven, as opposed to state-subsidized, healthcare policy, and has said rolling back environmental regulations on builders is the solution to the state’s housing crisis.

Deriding his opponent’s plans as “nanny state government,” Cox has signaled he does not see state spending as the solution to high costs.

“This debate is going to set up a clear choice between Venezeula, which is what Gavin Newsom wants California to look like, and the California dream restored, which is what I’m aiming to do,” he said.

Times staff writers Seema Mehta and Jaclyn Cosgrove contributed to this report.

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