That was quite a tag team: Gavin Newsom and President Trump. They helped elevate obscure Republican John Cox to the runoff for California governor — against Democrat Newsom.
It was a bizarre but effective narrow coalition.
Newsom helped pick his own general election opponent — preferably any Republican rather than a fellow Democrat. In this deep blue state, a Republican means no competition for high office.
Trump helped U.S. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) boost a Republican to the top of the November ticket. Their strategy is to lure GOP voters to the polls and save the party’s threatened California congressional seats.
But Cox was helped by more people than Newsom and Trump.
The major Democratic candidates below Newsom turned out to be surprisingly weak. Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and state Treasurer John Chiang vastly underperformed original expectations. They never got traction.
And the big lesson from Tuesday’s election: You can lead voters to an open primary and give them a chance to choose a candidate from any party, but they won’t play the game. In primaries, Republicans vote for Republicans, Democrats for Democrats, especially in this Trump era of extreme polarization.
Turn voters loose in a jungle primary and they’ll stay in their party cages.
Why is it called a “jungle” primary, particularly by the national media? Got me. Maybe it’s because all the political animals are fighting one another for survival. In California, we mostly call it a “top-two” primary because the candidates who finish first and second qualify for the general election, regardless of party.
Two Democrats — for the second straight election — advanced to the general election for U.S. senator. Incumbent Dianne Feinstein should coast to her fifth full term. Former state Senate leader Kevin de León finished a distant second, barely beating out an invisible Republican, James P. Bradley.
Bradley got no help from the state GOP, let alone Trump. They missed an opportunity.
Newsom ran a brilliant campaign, aided by relative youth (50), good looks and charm — often underestimated in media analysis — and a nice-sounding if inconsequential day job: lieutenant governor.
He entered the race very early, in February 2015, continually raised lots of money and didn’t say anything really stupid — or hardly anything at all of substance about what he’d do as governor.
The voters deserve some details by November — something beyond the focus-grouped taglines: affordable housing, universal healthcare and attacking children’s poverty. How? What money? But don’t count on it. Successful politicians rarely take risks.
Newsom’s most effective ad was the one ostensibly attacking Cox for “standing with Donald Trump and the NRA” and for calling gun control “a waste of time.” That alerted Republican voters to Cox, and they liked the far-right ideology they saw and heard.
Then Trump endorsed Cox, a highly unusual meddling in state primaries by a president. Trump’s blessing and the Newsom ad ensured Cox his pass to November.
Villaraigosa got unprecedented late help from an independent group of wealthy charter school backers who ponied up nearly $23 million. But voters needed to know more about Villaraigosa than that he struggled as a kid and was L.A.’s mayor — not a biggie outside the Southland. What specifically would he do as governor to improve schools and create good middle-class jobs? Didn’t really hear.
And Chiang just shouldn’t have run. He’s a nice guy and competent state treasurer, but governor was beyond his reach, especially in this high-strung era. He didn’t excite.
Some Democrats, mostly privately, have criticized Newsom for helping a Republican advance to the top of the November ticket. Theoretically, that will crank up GOP voter turnout and undermine Democratic efforts to oust Republican House members. It’s unseemly, bordering on party treason, some cry.
Sorry. It’s just playing by the rules laid out by the system. It allows a front-runner the luxury of helping choose his November opponent. And Newsom took advantage. His sole goal and personal obligation is to win the governorship. Let others worry about electing House members.
“But with a sacrificial lamb Republican opponent in November, Newsom does have a responsibility to run a very aggressive, full-bore campaign just like he was running against Antonio Villaraigosa or anyone else,” says veteran political consultant Garry South, who was Newsom’s advisor when the then-San Francisco mayor briefly ran for governor in 2010.
“If he takes a break and goes to Hawaii,” South continues, “it’s going to affect Democratic turnout and congressional and legislative seats. He can’t be like [Gov.] Jerry Brown in 2014 and go back to his ranch chasing rattlesnakes.”
Brown had a cakewalk that year, campaigned very little, and Democrats lost their supermajorities in both legislative houses.
Newsom also should be careful not to overplay the anti-Trump card, a lesson Democratic legislators haven’t yet learned. Pounding Trump riles up Republican voters, but apparently — based on Tuesday’s results — doesn’t motivate Latino Democrats all that much.
“Democrats spend too much time on Trump, arguing about stuff people don’t care about,” says former Democratic strategist Darry Sragow, who publishes the California Target Book, which handicaps congressional and legislative races. “Voters want better educations for their kids and they want work — and for their kids to someday have work.”
Regardless, you can expect Newsom to use his unlikely primary election ally — Trump — as a battering ram to hammer Cox. That could get old.
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