Handicapping the California Governor’s Race

With Jerry Brown stepping away after four terms, the 2018 governor’s race is a wide open field. Who are the early leaders — and what are a betting man’s odds?

Gov. Jerry Brown
Gov. Jerry Brown

After a half-century in California politics and too many wins and losses to count, Gov. Jerry Brown is nearing some kind of retirement.

He will be a tough act to follow, but four Democratic politicians and two token Republicans are declared candidates, and there are a couple of other possibilities, making for a potentially crowded race. The size of the field is important because the more candidates there are, the fewer primary election votes it takes to advance to a November runoff in California’s “top-two” system.

The prospects for an all-Democrat runoff are very high, given the lack of a viable Republican. As they strive for the finals, however, Democrats must cope with both the leftward drift of their party, driven by loathing for Donald Trump, and the ironic fact that Republican voters could be decisive in a close race.

To put it in horse-racing terms, it will not be a high-speed thoroughbred dash on a smoothly graded oval track, but a steeplechase in which the candidates must nimbly jump over fences and water hazards without stumbling.

Polls say that Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom is leading, but not decisively. As San Francisco mayor and a champion of same-sex marriage rights, Newsom wanted to run in 2010, but was forced to settle for the powerless understudy office when Brown claimed dibs.

Darry Sragow, a veteran campaign consultant who now teaches politics at the University of Southern California and publishes the “California Target Book,” sees Newsom as “relatively well known, has a good start on funding, but has some serious problems that he’ll have to deal with,” an allusion to a personal scandal that marred his time as mayor when he admitted to an affair with an aide’s wife.

Newsom dipped a bit in the polls recently, and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa rose, but, as Sragow says, Villaraigosa “has crossed swords with some players in the progressive community.” As mayor, Villaraigosa clashed with powerful school unions and also dealt with a personal scandal when he acknowledged an affair with a TV newscaster who covered City Hall.

Newsom has lately embraced the Democrats’ resurgent left wing on such issues as universal health care. Villaraigosa has been a little wary of the Berniecrats, and they of him, but is a strong prospect to make the runoff.

And then there’s John Chiang, the state treasurer, who is low in the polls. His public persona is soporific, but he exhibits an air of managerial competence that could attract moderate Republicans and independents. He also has a potential secret weapon in wealthy Asians who would love to see one of their own make it to Sacramento.

Were Newsom and Villaraigosa to engage in a duel of personal invective, Chiang could sneak in — much as another sleep-inducing politician, Gray Davis, did in 1998 when Democratic rivals Al Checchi and Jane Harman spent millions on what was called a “murder-suicide pact.”

Former state schools superintendent Delaine Eastin rounds out the field of declared Democrats, but her relative obscurity and her single-issue (education) platform are getting her nowhere.

Two other Democrats are possibilities: billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, but neither has made the jump into the race. And there are the two very little-known Republicans, businessman John Cox and Assemblyman Travis Allen, who have no chance.

In fact, Republican leaders are worried that with no viable GOP candidate — after San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer closed the door — there’s little to bring Republican to the polls, and a low GOP turnout could hurt the party in tight legislative and congressional contests.

Jockeying for Position: California Politicians

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (3-2). Broke from the gate early with a hefty bankroll. Almost certain to make the runoff, but his embrace of Berniecrat causes could alienate moderate voters.

Antonio Villaraigosa (3-1). Running a bit to Newsom’s right. Strong Latino support pushed him up in recent polls, but ho-hum record as Los Angeles mayor and squabbling with powerful unions could slow him down.

Treasurer John Chiang (5-2). With an earnest-but-dull public persona, he’s running behind the leaders, but wealthy Asians who yearn for one of their own to make it big could provide a much-needed push.

Delaine Eastin (7-1) Being the only woman in the declared field could benefit the former Bay Area legislator and state superintendent of schools, but she’s still a blip in the polls.

Tom Steyer (8-1): The billionaire environmentalist seems to yearn for political office but hasn’t entered the race, even after investing a lot of face time, as well as money, in building his image.

Eric Garcetti (10-1). Los Angeles’ current mayor is another potential entrant but is unlikely to run for governor and, in some circles, is seen as a potential Democratic presidential candidate.

John Cox (1,000-1): Wealthy Republican lawyer, businessman and philanthropist from San Diego is wearing the wrong party colors.

Travis Allen (1,000-1): Motormouth Republican state assemblyman from Huntington Beach can’t talk his way into race.

Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers.
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