California's gubernatorial primary boils down to this: It will determine whether Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom is a slam-dunk winner in November — or still must fight to be elected governor.
The former San Francisco mayor is a virtual cinch to finish No. 1 in the June 5 "top two" primary and advance to the November general election. All the polls show that.
If the No. 2 finisher is Republican businessman John Cox and he faces Democrat Newsom, it's game over. Newsom can start writing his inaugural speech.
Even if every California Republican and half the independents voted for Cox, it wouldn't be enough to overcome the certain solid Democratic support for Newsom. Democrats outnumber Republicans in voter registration by 44.6% to 25.3%. Independents total 25.1%. Republicans haven't won a statewide election in this deep blue state since 2006.
But if the second-place finisher is a Democrat — most likely former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — there could be a brawl in November. Anything could happen.
This is a weird election.
Republican strategist Mike Murphy, who isn't involved in the gubernatorial race, has called it "a sleep-walking zombie election" because it hasn't exactly grabbed voters' attention.
But behind the curtain there have been several subtle political moves.
Newsom has candidly acknowledged he'd love to run against an easy-mark Republican. So he has been surreptitiously helping Cox attract GOP voters through TV ads.
In a wink-wink attack ad run statewide, a narrator says that Cox "stands with Donald Trump and the NRA" and has "called gun laws a 'waste of time,' opposed background checks and a ban on assault weapons."
Newsom's shorthand message to Republican voters: "John Cox is your guy."
He wants Cox to pile up enough GOP votes to finish second in the primary. That means not splitting those votes with state Assemblyman Travis Allen of Huntington Beach, Cox's main Republican rival.
Meanwhile, Newsom is also attacking Democrats Villaraigosa and state Treasurer John Chiang in TV spots, trying to keep their vote totals under Cox's.
Running negative ads against party opponents is normal. But running an ostensible attack ad aimed at helping the supposed target is rare. In fact, I can't remember it ever happening in a major California race.
"Newsom is clearly trying to make sure he runs against Cox and not Villaraigosa," says Bob Shrum, a former Democratic strategist who is director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.
Shrum recalls using the same ploy in a 1992 Kansas congressional race working for Democratic incumbent Dan Glickman. He helped the most extreme Republican win the GOP nomination by attacking him as an extremist. Glickman won in November.
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) used that tactic to win reelection in 2012. She helped choose her November opponent by attacking him in the primary.
"When you call someone 'too conservative' in a Republican primary," she later wrote, "that's giving him or her a badge of honor."
Republican strategist Murphy calls Newsom's TV ad "too clever by half."
"It's awfully cynical," he says. "This is so cynical Putin would be proud of it."
"It's not a day for idealism or romance in politics," he adds. "It's everything you hate about politics."
Shrum and Murphy are analysts for a new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll, which shows second place in the gubernatorial contest very much up for grabs. All 27 candidates were included in the survey, listed as they appear on the ballot.
The top results among likely voters: Newsom 21%, Villaraigosa 11%, Cox 10%, Chiang 6%, Allen 5%, former state schools chief Delaine Eastin, a Democrat, 3%. A whopping 39% were still undecided.
The nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California also released a new poll Wednesday showing Cox ahead of Villaraigosa for the No. 2 spot.
The results among likely voters: Newsom 25%, Cox 19%, Villaraigosa 15%, Allen 11%, Chiang 9%, Eastin 6%, undecided 15%.
Cox got an endorsement boost last week from President Trump. That followed an earlier endorsement by the state's leading Republican, U.S. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield. But neither Trump nor McCarthy really care a rip about Cox, or think he has any prayer of being elected.
They merely think that without a Republican at the top of the ticket in November, GOP voters won't be drawn to the polls. And if they aren't, they can't vote for Republican members of Congress who are in tough reelection battles. Democrats are trying to flip 24 Republican seats nationally to recapture control of the House. California has seven targeted Republican-held seats in districts where voters sided with Democrat Hillary Clinton over Trump in 2016.
That's also the main motivation behind the ballot initiative to repeal the state gas-tax increase enacted last year by Democrats to raise money for road repairs. The theory is it will inspire conservatives to vote.
There was encouraging data for Republican congressional candidates in the Public Policy Institute survey. It took a special look at 10 districts considered competitive — nine are held by Republicans. In those 10 battlegrounds, 59% of likely voters approved of Trump's job performance, compared with only 38% statewide.
Also in those districts, 61% said they'd vote for a Republican House candidate over a Democrat, compared with 38% statewide.
So primary voters will decide whether there'll be a competitive contest for governor in November — and also whether Republicans might get a little help in retaining the House.