By Ben Christopher | CALmatters
Democrat Gavin Newsom is trying to swat away growing complaints that his campaign tactic of boosting Republican rival John Cox could cause collateral damage in autumn: driving up GOP turnout and thereby undermining Democratic efforts to win key California congressional seats necessary for their party to take control of the House of Representatives.
But what would be bad for the Democrats in November is good for frontrunner Newsom now. Only two contenders will advance to the general election after the June 5 primary, and he would prefer to knock out any Democratic contenders who might be tougher for him to beat one-on-one in this blue state.
Just the opposite, he claims.
“Isn’t this a moment of opportunity to unite the Democratic Party?” said Newsom this week, as his sky blue campaign bus made its way through Silicon Valley traffic between San Francisco and San Jose.
He went on to argue that the party would instead benefit from a race “where you can line up a Democratic agenda and support those down-ballot tickets and unite the party…instead of spending resources attacking one another.”
Newsom has taken flak from Democratic gubernatorial candidates Antonio Villaraigosa and Delaine Eastin for giving the Cox campaign an implicit boost. Earlier this month, Team Newsom ran a political ad reminding voters that Cox “stands with Donald Trump and the NRA.” That’s an attack ad that happens to double as a ‘signal boost’ for the conservative businessman with Republican voters.
That Newsom, a progressive Democrat and avowed political foe of President Trump, would favor a Republican with the president’s endorsement, is an odd artifact of California’s “top two” election system. In a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly two-to-one, Newsom’s clear preference would be to face a member of the opposite party. “A Republican would be ideal,” he said at a recent debate.
“Cox himself would not be a huge GOP voter draw, but the absence of any Republican candidate at all would probably depress the party’s turnout,” said Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College.
And contrary to Newsom’s assertion that a single Democratic candidate would rally progressive voters, Pitney pointed to the 2014 gubernatorial campaign in which Gov. Jerry Brown faced off against Republican Neel Kashkari. “And turnout was a record low,” said Pitney.
Lower turnout among California Republicans in November could have national implications. Democrats need to net only 23 congressional seats to take back political control of the House of Representatives next year. Some of the most heavily contested districts are in California, including seven Republican-held seats highlighted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. In other words, political control of Congress—and with it, the fate of President Trump’s future policy agenda and potentially even the likelihood of impeachment proceedings down the road—could be decided by California voters. A lot hinges on who votes and who doesn’t.
Last week, the Villaraigosa campaign filed a complaint with the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission, arguing that supporters of the Newsom campaign broke state election rules by failing to disclose that they support Cox as well. “This is a man who will justify just about anything that is in his personal political interests,” said Villaraigosa campaign spokesman, Luis Vizcaino, referring to Newsom.
Meanwhile, supporters of the Villaraigosa campaign have been engaged in the opposite strategy of tearing down Cox’s cred with conservative voters. Public polls show Cox and Villaraigosa competing for the second place spot.
“Newsom’s interests clash with those of Democrats down the ballot,” said Pitney. “They want lower GOP turnout, which could tip some key races their way. Newsom wants an opponent whom he could beat without any effort. That’s Cox.”
Cox, of course, would disagree. He spent the day in Fresno holding back-to-back press conference with Republican candidate for attorney general, Steven Bailey. Villaraigosa also spent the day getting out the vote in Fresno, holding a press conference with the city’s police chief and touring a high school.
But neither launched their last week before election day on June 5th with quite as much fanfare as Newsom, who kicked off a statewide bus tour outside his former stomping ground at San Francisco City Hall.
On the first leg, Newsom spoke to reporters for just shy of an hour and a half, where he re-articulated many of the policy positions he has outlined throughout the campaign—from support for single-payer health care to urging a more proactive state role in land use decisions. “Local government has to be incentivized for good behavior and…penalized for bad behavior,” he said. (Here’s a deep dive on where Newsom and his fellow candidates come down on 40 state issues.)
If virtually every public poll is to believed, Newsom is a lock for one of the top two spots next week. Still, he said, “we’re running as if we’re way behind.”
Then again, it’s never too early to start campaigning for November.
CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.
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