In Fight for California Governor, Candidates Stick to Ideological Corners
Posted June 6, 2018 5:10 p.m. EDT
LOS ANGELES — In most elections, the primary is the season for partisanship and appealing to the party’s most ideological voters. Candidates slide to the center — appealing, in theory, to a broader electorate with a more moderate message — as they shift into a general election.
But even before most of the votes were counted, two of the candidates running to be the next governor of California — Gavin Newsom, the Democratic lieutenant governor, and John Cox, a Republican businessman — made clear that they were inclined to stay in their ideological corners.
If Newsom and Cox continue down this road, the election for governor is going to offer as stark an ideological choice as voters are going to find in just about any ballot booth in the country: on health care, taxes, immigration, government spending and President Donald Trump. And it comes at a time when California has become the center of Democratic resistance to Republican policies, and after eight years in which the current governor, Jerry Brown, has struck a decidedly more moderate tone in governing.
Celebrating his primary victory Tuesday night, Newsom offered a sweeping view of what he wants California’s government to achieve: guaranteed health care for all, a “Marshall Plan” to build affordable housing and an end to childhood poverty. Cox heralded his endorsement from Trump — as did, not incidentally, Newsom — and blamed Democrats for excessive spending, lax immigration policies and high taxes. “It wasn’t Donald Trump that made California the highest taxed state in the country, it was Gavin Newsom and the Democrats,” Cox said.
Newsom might decide in the weeks ahead that he needs to scale back on some of his more ambitious pledges. One risk he faces is disappointing supporters if he sets expectations too high with such an ambitiously liberal agenda, and then fails to deliver when it comes to governing.
Still, given how Democratic the electorate is in California — Trump lost this state to Hillary Clinton by nearly 4 million votes — Newsom has little motivation to modulate his positions or message as he finds himself running against a conservative Republican whose candidacy has been embraced by the president.
By contrast, if Newsom had found himself in a November election with, say, Antonio Villaraigosa, the former Democratic mayor of Los Angeles who many thought would make it to the ballot — and who had struck a decidedly more moderate note — he might have felt some pressure to move to the center.
“He doesn’t think that Cox has a chance in the world, so he has no incentive to move to the center,” said Dan Schnur, who teaches political communications at the University of Southern California and worked as an adviser to Pete Wilson, a Republican governor.
“He can run as hard left as he wants and as long as he attacks Trump two or three times a day, he’ll be just fine,” he said. “The only thing better than winning big for Newsom would be to goad Trump into the race.”
Cox is a long shot by any standard, and it is hard to see how he can win in a state like California without putting some distance between himself and the president. But Cox, in his victory speech on Tuesday night, did not show any sign of trying to do that, instead invoking Trump and his policies repeatedly to cheers from supporters.
Newsom made clear he intended to run against Cox as a Trump surrogate in an interview days before the election. On election night, he termed his opponent a “foot soldier” in the president’s “war on California.” And on Wednesday, he eagerly retweeted Trump’s message of support for Cox, with this note on top: “Please come campaign for him as much as possible.”
In no small part because of Trump, and his ongoing conflict with California, this contest is playing out in an atmosphere of partisan polarization, which encourages the candidates to appeal to their base. That partisanship may be a more powerful force for voters in California and across the nation than even ideology, said Raphael Sonenshein, the executive director of the Edmund G. Brown Institute for Public Affairs.
“Trump is the key figure,” Sonenshein said. “He put Cox where he is. The Republican Party is now the Trump Party, and that is more partisan/identity than it is just ideology.” Newsom is embracing a platform that would take this state decidedly to the left of Brown, who was a famous force for moderation in Sacramento. That of course could change should Newsom find himself sitting behind the governor’s desk, particularly if he faces a recession, as Brown has warned. As the campaign progressed, Newsom pulled in his horns on some of his more ambitious promises, saying, for example, that single-payer health care, which was a centerpiece of his campaign, might not happen in his first term.
But for now, he is suggesting a level of ambition — Republicans might describe it as a level of spending — that will mark a break from the past eight years in California.
“These days too many politicians want to tell us what can’t be done,” he said at his victory speech at a San Francisco nightclub on Tuesday night. “But our can-do campaign painted in bold colors and big ideas. Guaranteed health care for all. A Marshall Plan for affordable housing.”
The other critical question for national Democrats and Republicans is what a race like this might mean for voter turnout this fall. In most years, that would not be a big concern, given the state’s propensity to vote for Democrats. But Democrats are looking to capture seven Republican-held congressional seats.
Newsom had wanted Cox as his opponent, and ran advertisements intended to boost his prospects. National Democrats had wanted the governor’s race to be a contest between two Democrats, in the calculation that the absence of a Republican on a statewide ballot would mean that Republican voters would have less reason to turn out. Republicans appear to have been shut out in the November race for Senate; early results suggest it will be Sen. Dianne Feinstein and a Democratic challenger, Kevin de León, a member of the state Senate.
“If it was two Democrats in the governor’s race and the U.S. Senate race, it would have had a real negative impact on turnout for Republicans in the general election,” said Paul Mitchell, a Sacramento data strategist. “There are few voters — particularly on the Republican side — who are going to be strategically not voting or not voting based on a poll.”