By Dan Walters | CALmatters Columnist
Eight weeks out, the June 5 primary election’s biggest uncertainty is whether Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom will have an unobstructed pathway to becoming California’s next governor or will have to fight for it.
All candidates, regardless of party, will appear on the ballot and the top two vote-getters will advance to the November election.
Democrat Newsom is so confident of placing first — a confidence bolstered by recent polling — that he’s decided to skip any remaining debates or joint appearances with his rivals. Why take a chance that something might pop up in such an event that would be damaging?
Newsom and his backers, especially those in the unions, are hoping, of course, that one of his two Republican rivals places second. That would give the former San Francisco mayor a virtually certain victory in November, given the state’s lopsided pro-Democratic electorate.
In fact, Republican John Cox, a wealthy Rancho Santa Fe businessman and philanthropist, pulled into second place in a Public Policy Institute of California poll last month, displacing Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa, the former mayor of Los Angeles.
For months, Newsom had been stalled in PPIC”s periodic polling, while Villaraigosa had been closing the gap, with a January PPIC poll finding the two in a virtual tie. Suddenly, however, Villaraigosa slipped into third place in March while Newsom’s standing shot upward.
The reasons for the change are unclear, since there seemingly hadn’t been any needle-moving events in the two months since the previous PPIC poll, other than a state Democratic Party convention dominated by pro-Newsom and anti-Villaraigosa liberal activists.
Villarigosa, who has positioned himself a few clicks to the right of Newsom and is anathema to unions, took the poll findings stoically.
“This is a top-two election and we have to get in the runoff,” he told a meeting with CALmatters journalists on the day the poll was released. “I’ve got some work to do and I’ll keep on working.”
While facing a token Republican, presumably Cox, would make Newsom an overwhelming favorite to win it all in November, a duel with Villaraigosa would have different chemistry and a much less certain outcome.
It would be a regional conflict between two former big city mayors with not only ideological differences but ethnic overtones. PPIC’s polling shows strong support for Villaraigosa among Latinos, for instance, while whites favor Newsom.
The third major Democrat in the race, John Chiang, is Asian, and his support, if he fails to make the cut on June 5, would be up for grabs.
While the identity of the finalists for governor is the biggest June 5 unknown, it’s not the only one.
Democrats are making a big push to capture several Republican-held congressional seats, centered on Southern California districts that voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016, but there are so many Democrats running in some of the targeted districts that the top-two system could generate two Republican finalists, thwarting Democratic hopes.
Having alternative Republican candidates in those districts is a ploy, apparently encouraged by GOP leaders, that has Democratic strategists worried because the outcomes of those races could determine whether their party can recapture control of Congress this year.
Finally, even though eight weeks sounds like a lot of time for the candidates to make their pitches, voting by Californians overseas has already begun and on May 7, residents can begin mailing their ballots. So there’s really only one month of campaigning before Californians begin to make their choices.
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