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Keep an eye on California's down-ballot races — they could shape the state's politics and policy for years to come

Keep an eye on California's down-ballot races — they could shape the state's politics and policy for years to come
In this Nov. 8, 2016 file photo, voters cast ballots at City Hall in San Francisco. (Jeff Chiu / AP)

It’s a strange election for state offices. The race for governor is a boring jog. The most intriguing contests are for relatively obscure posts.

State insurance commissioner, state superintendent of public instruction and lieutenant governor — those races are much more interesting than the pillow fight for governor.

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So are some of the ballot propositions — particularly measures to repeal a gas tax increase, greatly expand rent control and provide residential property tax breaks for seniors.

None of these contests has been drawing nearly as much interest as brawls in previous state elections, for two principal reasons:

One, all eyes and ears have been on President Trump. He’s not on the ballot, but he’s up front in every voter’s mind.

Two, the Republican Party has virtually collapsed in California and isn’t producing competitive statewide candidates. The GOP bench is practically bare.

It’s the opposite with Democrats, whose bench is overflowing with ambitious, frustrated wannabes.

The GOP is now No. 3 in voter registration (24.5%) behind “no party preference,” or “independents,” (26.8%) and Democrats (43.8%). In the last 20 years, Republican registration has fallen by 11 percentage points while independents have soared by 14. Democrats have dropped by 3 points, but are helped by independents leaning left.

There are two reasons why the California GOP has practically cratered: One, it dug a hole on illegal immigration and social issues and didn’t follow voters as they turned left. Two, the electorate has become increasingly diverse. Latinos and Asian Americans — many from immigrant families — are siding with Democrats.

This lopsided voter mix has led to one-party rule in Sacramento. And that isn’t expected to change on election day.

The best the GOP can reasonably hope for is to keep Democrats from gaining supermajorities in both legislative houses. To obtain a two-thirds vote, enough to pass tax hikes without Republican help, Democrats need 54 seats in the Assembly and 27 in the Senate. Going into the election, they have 55 and 26, respectively.

No Republican has won a statewide office since 2006. None is expected to this time either.

Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, 51, is a heavy favorite to be elected governor, one of the most powerful public offices in America and a potential springboard to the White House.

Newsom may be more liberal than termed-out Gov. Jerry Brown. But he also might be more cautious on mega projects such as the bullet train and delta water tunnels. He’s talking about scaling back both.

Newsom held a comfortable lead — 49% to 38% — over Republican businessman John Cox, 63, in the latest poll by the Public Policy Institute of California. One cautionary note for the Democratic front-runner: Independents favored the Republican by five points.

A more intriguing race is for insurance commissioner because one candidate is showing Republicans how they might win a statewide office. Career-long Republican Steve Poizner reregistered “no party preference.”

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“There’s no room in this job for a partisan politician,” Poizner said. In this polarized climate, there wasn’t going to be room for a Republican either.

“He knew if he had that scarlet letter ‘R’ after his name in California he was going to lose,” Democratic strategist Garry South says.

Poizner, 61, was elected insurance commissioner as a Republican in 2006 after making a fortune as a Silicon Valley high-tech entrepreneur. He gave up the office to run for governor in 2010 and was trounced in the primary by Meg Whitman.

His Democratic opponent is state Sen. Ricardo Lara, 43, of Bell Gardens, one of the Legislature’s more liberal members. He co-authored a bill last year to create a state single-payer, universal healthcare plan that would have cost around $400 billion annually It passed the Senate and was shelved in the Assembly.

Lara also has been a strong advocate for immigrants living here illegally.

He would be the first statewide office-holder to come out as gay.

Poizner is the first independent to run statewide in a general election. It’s assumed he can draw independent votes. But political pros are eager to learn whether he can also attract Republicans. Will they vote for a candidate outside their party? How about moderate Democrats?

“If Poizner wins, that becomes the new benchmark,” Republican consultant Rob Stutzman says. “It’ll mean Republicans don’t run anymore for statewide office as Republicans if they’re serious.”

In the contest for superintendent of public instruction, there’s a fierce fight between teachers unions and charter schools. The office is officially nonpartisan, but both contenders are Democrats.

Assemblyman Tony Thurmond, 50, of Richmond is the unions’ candidate. Education consultant Marshall Tuck, 45, is backed by charter school advocates. He previously managed turnaround efforts at some low-performing Los Angeles schools.

It’s a big bucks contest. There could be total campaign spending of around $50 million.

For teachers unions, the proliferation of nonunion charter schools is a threat. They want more state control over these schools and Thurmond agrees. Tuck advocates paying higher salaries to teachers in troubled schools, and the unions object to that special treatment.

Tuck narrowly lost to incumbent Tom Torlakson, the unions’ candidate, in 2014. A Tuck victory this time would be felt in the education world as a moderate earthquake.

The candidates for lieutenant governor have distinctly different résumés.

State Sen. Ed Hernandez, 61, an Azusa optometrist, has been a legislator for 12 years and pushed through important bills on healthcare.

Eleni Kounalakis, 52, is a Sacramento land developer and former U.S. ambassador to Hungary. She’s a longtime Democratic activist and heavy contributor to party candidates.

Both are policy wonks competing for a job with little power — but offering a convenient stepping stone to higher office.

California voters are riled up over Trump, but don’t seem to be in a rebellious mood about the state. A recent USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll found that 53% think California is going in the right direction, while 47% believe it’s on the wrong track.

Voters have until 8 p.m. Nov. 6 to officially cast any gripes.

VOTER GUIDE

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Find full election coverage at Decision California.

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