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Latino vote key to Villaraigosa's bid to be California governor

The California governor's race has narrowed into a battle for second place, and Republican John Cox's campaign is ``cautiously optimistic'' that he has secured that spot after recent polls show the San Diego County businessman stretching his lead over a field that includes former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

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Joe Garofoli
, San Francisco Chronicle

The California governor's race has narrowed into a battle for second place, and Republican John Cox's campaign is ``cautiously optimistic'' that he has secured that spot after recent polls show the San Diego County businessman stretching his lead over a field that includes former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

Whether that optimism was well founded may not be known until early Wednesday, hours after the polls close, when the count from Villaraigosa's base in Los Angeles County typically comes in. But many factors could change before Tuesday's California primary in this unpredictable year of Democratic enthusiasm, vociferous opposition to President Trump, millions spent by outside groups and a Latino electorate that could outperform expectations.

There's widespread expectation that Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, front-runner in the polls, will finish first. Villaraigosa will need some help and a strong get-out-the-vote campaign to join his fellow Democrat in the November general election.

A poll by the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, released last week, was in line with other recent surveys that indicate Cox is solidifying his advantage for second place. The Berkeley IGS Poll showed Newsom leading with 33 percent, Cox at 20 percent and Villaraigosa at 13 percent.

``If you're Antonio Villaraigosa, you never want to see those kinds of numbers,'' said Mindy Romero, director of the California Civic Engagement Project at UC Davis and an expert on the Latino electorate, which Villaraigosa -- the son of Mexican immigrants -- is counting on in the primary.

``But a big unknown is the strength of the Latino turnout,'' Romero said. ``The question is, how many will turn out? It's going to be a challenge to get out the vote.''

The early returns haven't been promising for Villaraigosa. Among voters who already have turned in their ballots, Latinos are represented at a level typical for a midterm California primary election, said Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data, a company that provides voter information to campaigns and regularly tracks turnout.

``It's typical in a year that's supposed to be atypical. Not like one that was supposed to be a big blue wave,'' Mitchell said.

He cautioned that it was still early in voting terms. ``We're only in the third inning,'' Mitchell said.

He recalled that in the weeks before the 2016 general election, the Latino electorate flashed similarly ``paltry early vote numbers.'' But ``those numbers were buoyed by a large turnout on election day.'' That could happen again, he said.

``We don't know if there is a ton of motivated voters on election day,'' Mitchell said. ``There are organizing efforts in the atmosphere and a lot of inspiration out there. We can't calculate how motivated people are to vote.''

The polls may be undercounting Villaraigosa's support among Latinos, said Matt Barreto, a professor of political science at UCLA and co-founder of the Latino Decisions survey. The Berkeley survey, for example, indicates that 32 percent of likely Latino voters back Villaraigosa, compared with 22 percent for Newsom and 11 percent for Cox.

``It's unlikely that (Villaraigosa) will only win 32 percent of the Latino vote,'' Barreto said. ``The more likely scenario is that he takes around 50 percent.''

Barreto's advice for Villaraigosa: ``He should be knocking on every single Latino door in Los Angeles ... nonstop.''

That's what Villaraigosa did late last week, campaigning for 24 consecutive hours Thursday across Los Angeles County. Senior Villaraigosa campaign adviser Mike Madrid -- a longtime GOP operative who is an expert on the Latino vote -- was confident in a stronger-than-usual Latino turnout.

``That's what has happened everywhere else in the country'' in recent elections, Madrid said. ``Why would it not happen in the most diverse state with the most anti-Trump sentiment?''

On the other side, Cox campaign manager Tim Rosales said he was ``cautiously optimistic'' that his candidate would advance to the general election. But there were warning signs in last week's Berkeley poll -- for example, only about half those surveyed knew enough about Cox to have an opinion, and, of those, the split between positive and negative views was about even. Of course, the news wasn't much better for Villaraigosa -- more people have heard of him, but more people view him negatively than positively, the poll indicated.

More ominous for Cox's campaign is that a super PAC (political action committee) supporting Villaraigosa -- Families and Teachers for Antonio Villaraigosa for Governor 2018 -- has raised $22 million, including a couple of seven-figure contributions last week, indicating that the group's wealthy backers of charter schools still have faith in him. Rosales wonders how they will be involved in the campaign's final hours.

``With that kind of money coming in, who knows?'' Rosales said.

One thing he is confident of -- Republican voters have been moving toward Cox ever since Trump tweeted his endorsement of him last month. That nod helped Cox consolidate Republican support and propelled him past GOP Assemblyman Travis Allen of Orange County in the governor's race polls.

That ``was helpful,'' Rosales said. ``He is the leader of our party, and that means a lot.''

While Villaraigosa is spending the last days of the primary season barnstorming across Southern California -- and has Bay Area campaigning scheduled Monday -- Cox is headlining only one public event per day. It's a sign of the campaign's confidence. At this point, after weeks of TV commercials and mailers, there isn't much more to say to voters, Cox's people figure.

``I've never thought that any voters are going to be choosing between Villaraigosa and John Cox,'' Rosales said. ``Republicans will vote for Republicans, Democrats will vote for Democrats, and (decline-to-state voters) will break where they ideologically fit all over the map.''

And Rosales is encouraged that ``Villaraigosa has not been running away with the Latino vote. Whether that changes, we don't know. This election is all about who turns out.''

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