2018 gubernatorial race already heating up

Gavin NewsomStill more than two years away, the race to succeed Gov. Jerry Brown in 2018 has already become one of the most closely watched competitions in California politics.

It has made adversaries of the state’s two highest-profile personifications of its two biggest political power blocs — Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, hometown hero for the Bay Area’s monied elite of self-styled progressives, and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, still the darling of Southland Latinos who have long nursed a grudge against the San Francisco-Sacramento corridor’s outsized influence on statewide politics.

Already, Newsom “has announced that he will take on the gun lobby with an initiative to, among other things, outlaw possession of large ammunition magazines and require background checks on any ammunition. He’s also said he will back the legalizing of marijuana for general use, not just for medicinal purposes,” according to the Los Angeles Times. “Villaraigosa’s unofficial campaign is almost the polar opposite of Newsom’s,” the paper added. “The San Francisco mayor’s gun-and-pot measures will probably be most popular among liberals along California’s coast; Villaraigosa is spending his election run-up treading up and down the state’s more conservative interior.”

Strategy and scrutiny

Antonio Villaraigosa - longRemarkably, however, Newsom and Villaraigosa have yet to clear the field of other candidates, several of whom have as strong a case — if not stronger — to run as Brown’s rightful heir. In a recent Field poll reported by the San Jose Mercury News, respondents spread their support over enough possible contenders to leave Newsom and Villaraigosa almost tied. “The survey found that more than four in 10 likely voters say they’d back Villaraigosa, 62, and Newsom, 48, and a slightly smaller share say they’d endorse [current Los Angeles Mayor Eric] Garcetti, 44,” noted the Mercury News. “It also shows that almost three in 10 voters say they’d support Democrats Tom Steyer, a billionaire environmentalist, and John Chiang, the state treasurer.”

With Brown termed out, little surprise has accompanied the attention surrounding his party’s scramble for a new generation of statewide leadership. Adding a twist, Republicans have remained remarkably uncompetitive at the gubernatorial level. “The prospect for any Republican gubernatorial candidate is dim in this heavily Democratic state,” the Sacramento Bee observed. Visalia Republican Serenity Holden, who participated in the Field poll, told the Bee “I’m really kind of screwed.”

But the plight of Holden’s fellow Republicans has heightened the stakes for the race’s contending Democrats and their party. The prospect of a Democrat-on-Democrat showdown would likely bring long-running tensions between the more corporatist and more ideological wings of the party.

Republicans in retreat

Perhaps with that dynamic in mind, the state GOP has gone out of its way to keep its powder dry in 2016. Party officials have even warned would-be candidates not to expect support if they jump into races where more moderate Democrats are likely to square off against hopefuls farther to their left. “Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, R-Modesto, said party officials told her that if she runs against Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, D-Stockton, she’ll be getting no help from them,” the Los Angeles Times reported. “Neither state GOP chairman Jim Brulte nor Senate Republican leader Jean Fuller of Bakersfield would comment on the unusual decision to lay off a competitive race, especially one that could involve a legislative leader.”

The party has established a precedent for this kind of unusual move. After Republican candidates were withdrawn from this year’s special state Senate election, pro-business Democrat and former Brown advisor Steve Glazer triumphed over a big labor effort to push another candidate into office. In a recent interview with the Pleasanton Weekly, Glazer reaffirmed his centrist bona fides. “Certainly on public safety matters, I’m more conservative. On fiscal issues, I’m more conservative. On social issues, I’m very progressive. So you can’t just put a broad label on it,” he said, calling himself “the most conservative Democrat in the [state] Senate.”

But the California GOP’s primary season psych-outs may not scale upward to the gubernatorial level. Although Newsom has come much closer than Villaraigosa to embodying the kind of Democrat state Republicans might begrudgingly pull the lever for, Newsom’s use of a base-pleasing agenda to advance his potent personal ambition has made him a far more threatening candidate to the GOP’s long-term fortunes than either L.A.’s former mayor or its current one.

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