Down To The Wire

Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom is almost certain to finish first among the 27 gubernatorial candidates on the ballot. But who finishes second is more important than ever.


It’s rare that a California primary election in a non-presidential year has high stakes — but the June 5 balloting is one of those occasions.

It could have national implications, specifically whether Democrats will have a shot at capturing several Republican-held congressional seats in the state. They are critical to the Dems’ hopes of flipping 24 House seats nationally, recapturing control of the House and making life miserable for Donald Trump in the second half of his first presidential term.

But there are high stakes in the election for California as well, perhaps determining the identity of the next governor.

Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom is almost certain to finish first among the 27 gubernatorial candidates on the ballot. But who finishes second is important. With just a few days left before the primary, there’s a too-close-to-call duel for second place between Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa, the former mayor of Los Angeles, and Republican John Cox, a businessman and philanthropist from San Diego — and with California’s top-two primary system, second place is just as important as first.

Under the state’s unusual voting rules, the top two primary finishers for governor, U.S. senator, other statewide offices, the Legislature and Congress will face each other in the November general election — regardless of party.

That’s why the primary outcomes in the disputed House seats are important. There are so many Democrats running for those seats — and potentially splitting the Democratic vote — that the top two finishers in some races could be Republicans, forcing Democrats off the November ballot.

In the governor’s race, Cox and Villaraigosa were running very close for second place in two statewide polls published less than two weeks before the election, one by the Public Policy Institute of California and the other by the Los Angeles Times and the University of Southern California.

Polling, however, is difficult because primary election turnouts are notoriously difficult to predict — not only how many registered voters will actually cast ballots but who they are.

In the last non-presidential primary, in 2014, state turnout was a record low, just 25 percent. This year’s turnout is likely to be somewhat higher, perhaps one-third of the state’s 19 million registered voters. But it’s uncertain whether Republican turnout will be large enough to get Cox into contention, or whether Latinos, Villaraigosa’s most important base, will propel him into second place.

Although Cox would have almost no chance of defeating Newsom, Republican leaders want him on the November ballot to give GOP voters a reason to turn out and back the party’s candidates in those contested congressional races. For the same reason, they are pushing a November ballot measure to repeal the state’s new gas tax. A late endorsement of Cox by Trump was aimed at boosting GOP voting.

If Villaraigosa squeaks into second place, rather than Cox, it would touch off a showdown between competing Democratic factions.

Newsom is backed by most unions and the resurgent “Berniecrat” wing of the party, promising single-payer health insurance, resistance to Trump on all fronts and support for the progressive faction’s other high priorities.

Villaraigosa is clearly staking out more centrist territory, skeptical of single-payer health care and despised by public sector unions — but supported by law enforcement groups and some private sector unions.

Education has emerged, along with health care, as a serious point of friction. While education unions line up behind Newsom, education reformers and charter school advocates are spending heavily for Villaraigosa, who battled with unions as mayor.

That makes the gubernatorial primary outcome important. If Cox places second, Newsom can begin ordering new furniture for the governor’s suite. If it’s Villaraigosa, however, game on.

Keep reading: California’s rising political stars repeatedly bump up against a gray ceiling. When will aging icons like Dianne Feinstein and Nancy Pelosi step aside?

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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