LOS ANGELES – The California governor’s race was once ballyhooed as a proving ground for Democratic Party ideas in the Trump era, a blockbuster contest in which Democrats would not only pick the chief executive of the nation’s most populous state but also begin to shape the party’s agenda heading into the 2020 presidential primary.
Instead, it has devolved into a king-size flop. One day before the primary election here, the leading candidates sit largely indistinguishable on issues of substance, with little evidence of any intraparty, values-laden clash.
Rather, election day will culminate a contest that has morphed into a bizarre exercise in gaming California’s unusual, top-two primary system. Confronted with a primary in which the top two vote-getters advance to the general election regardless of party affiliation, supporters of the leading Democrats in the race, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, focused their attention on elevating one of two lesser-known Republican candidates in an effort to manipulate the election’s outcome.
In a state where Republican registration has cratered – it now hovers at about 25 percent statewide – Newsom has a far greater chance of defeating the leading Republican, John Cox, than Villaraigosa. So the lieutenant governor has aired advertisements highlighting Cox’s conservative credentials for Republican voters to bolster his chances of finishing second.
Supporters of Villaraigosa, meanwhile, have promoted the candidacy of Republican Travis Allen in an effort to depress Cox’s share of the primary vote – and to help the former mayor’s chances of gaining a spot on the November ballot.
“Nobody even cares who wins,” said Steve Maviglio, a Democratic strategist in Sacramento. “It’s about who comes in second.”
State Treasurer John Chiang, lagging far behind in the race, released an ad recently with a more biting assessment.
“The race for governor,” he said, “has turned into a scam.”
If Newsom and Villaraigosa advance to the November election, it’s possible that they will engage in the kind of spirited, ideological debate that Democrats once envisioned for the 2018 campaign.
But for California Democrats and progressives looking West for inspiration, the race has already taken on the scent of a missed opportunity. Democrats here first circled 2018 on their calendars nearly four years ago, when Gov. Jerry Brown was reelected to a fourth and final term. As the national party fractured, the state emerged as a pole of the Trump resistance, leaving many eager to see heavily Democratic California assert a baseline set of issues for the national party – including on immigration, health care and, more emphatically than in most other states, climate change.
In muted skirmishes during the campaign, Newsom and his chief Democratic rivals have offered divergent views on single-payer health care and education, with Villaraigosa and Chiang cutting more moderate profiles than Newsom, the clear front-runner. But the Democratic candidates are so similar on so many issues that one long-shot candidate, former state schools chief Delaine Eastin, recently cut an advertisement using clips of her rivals at candidate forums saying versions of the phrase, “I agree with Delaine.”
Even if the Democratic candidates had aired substantive issues during the campaign, it’s unlikely many voters would have noticed. According to a recent USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll, just 13 percent of registered voters said they had watched or listened to any gubernatorial debate this year.
“It has not been an airing of fundamental policy differences within the Democratic tent,” said former Republican Rep. Tom Campbell, who left the Republican Party and became an independent over his objections to President Donald Trump. “The Democratic Party in California and the Democratic campaign consultants appear to have decided that the race is a referendum on President Trump. That will motivate their base, that will help down-ticket, the more Democrats who come out to vote. And specifying particular subject areas where there is some disagreement . is dry by comparison.”
Promises to confront Trump have hung heavily over the gubernatorial election, unifying the Democratic candidates in their opposition to the president and blurring subtler differences between them.
“Every day, in every way, he sucks mindshare,” Newsom said while campaigning last week. “It’s an extraordinary thing. I continue to be just mesmerized. These town halls are getting bigger . and it’s Trump this, it’s Trump that – it’s zig-zag, this whirling dervish of just trying to run down the rabbit hole of the day. It’s the morning news. It’s the evening news. It’s a challenge for everybody, because you don’t even have focus on one issue for even 12 hours.”
If his campaign did not frame its policy positions as they contrast with Trump, Newsom said, he would fail to capture the electorate’s attention.
Steve Westly, a former Democratic state controller who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2006, agreed that Trump “has sucked the air out of the room.” Yet Westly, a Villaraigosa supporter and wealthy Silicon Valley investor who had considered running for governor again this year, said, "The Democratic Party needs to do better. It needs to talk about issues of the future. . We are not having that discussion.”
As Democrats look ahead to 2020, the California primary has sounded a note of caution about potential presidential candidates’ ability to campaign on any issue other than Trump, and to differentiate themselves on issues of substance. The primary has also laid bare the ongoing challenge of fielding inspirational candidates in an era of strong anti-incumbent and anti-establishment sentiment, Newsom, Chiang and Villaraigosa have all held or currently hold major office. And despite the success of women in other states, two Democratic women running for California governor, Eastin and Amanda Renteria, a former top Hillary Clinton campaign aide, have failed to gain a foothold.
“There’s been nobody in this race for people to get excited about,” Maviglio said.
Despite the race’s shortcomings, Dave Jones, California’s Democratic state insurance commissioner and a candidate for attorney general, said the party’s gubernatorial candidates as a whole have distinguished themselves as more progressive that Democrats in other states, even though “that may be lost sight of, as we focus on California.” And former Democratic Gov. Gray Davis said it is “unfair” to compare this year’s gubernatorial primary to previous years’ elections, including his, because of Trump’s outsize influence.
“We now live in the world of Donald Trump,” Davis said. “He dominates every news cycle. His entire goal is to occupy the news hole so no one else in public life gets any attention.”
Davis, who has not endorsed in the race, said the primary has produced “very good candidates, at least on the Democratic side, and very spirited debate.”
But he added, “I just think, it’s like a lunar eclipse, except it’s Donald Trump is eclipsing the candidates for California governor and every other race on planet Earth.”
Carla Marinucci contributed to this report.
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