Less than three weeks before the June 5 primary, the key horse-race question about the race for governor is this:
Will Antonio Villaraigosa finish second to set up a serious runoff campaign, or will the fall contest morph into the Gavin Newsom Coronation Tour?
Newsom, the tall, telegenic, and oleaginous 50-year-old lieutenant governor and former San Francisco mayor, jumped out early in the race to succeed Jerry Brown and, buoyed by the support of teachers’ and other public employee unions, from the start has held a consistent and commanding lead in opinion polls and cash grubbing.
Villaraigosa, the elfin, slick, and canny 65-year-old former L.A. mayor and Assembly speaker, is spurred by millions of dollars from wealthy advocates for charter schools and, for over a year, maintained a steady second-place spot, the key to catapulting into November’s political playoff under California’s top-two primary system.
In recent weeks, several surveys have shown Villaraigosa slipping as voters start to tune in to the race and Republicans begin to coalesce behind either of the two best-known GOP contenders: deep-pockets developer John Cox or Orange County Assemblymember Travis Allen.
“Allen and Cox appear to be rising,” the legendary California pol Willie Brown wrote in a column this week. “If either one can unite conservatives before the primary, Villaraigosa is done.”
Food fight! The colossally complex political crosscurrents of a jungle primary election that offers voters 26 names of wannabe governors to choose from on the ballot were on full display last week in San Jose, as Cox and Allen, plus Newsom, Villaraigosa, and two other Democrats, Treasurer John Chiang and former state superintendent of public instruction Delaine Eastin, appeared together for a statewide televised debate hosted by NBC political star Chuck Todd.
The fast-paced, 90-minute affair, which seemed more like political speed dating than an actual debate, featured three key dynamics:
- Newsom, as the front-runner, got hit hardest, most often, and from more directions than anyone, but more than held his own in fending off harsh attacks on everything from his support of the “sanctuary state” law to his notorious affair with a mayoral aide then married to one of his top advisers: “If you can’t trust Gavin with his best friend’s wife,” spat Allen, “why would you trust him with your state?”
- Cox and Allen, rumbling to attract GOP backing, presented two different strains of Republicanism, with the former positioning himself as a pro-business “Jack Kemp Republican” while the latter made a direct appeal to the Trump wing of the party, with an uninhibited display of tough talk and round-’em-up xenophobia.
- Villaraigosa, surprisingly, hung back and played it safe by focusing mostly on his record and biography, which reflected either confidence that his second-place spot is secure or a miscalculated, missed opportunity to appeal to his Latino base by stressing the historic nature of his candidacy.
This left plenty of running room for both Chiang, a master of state fiscal matters who suffers from Chronic Charisma-Deficit Disorder, and Eastin, whose old-school stem-winder style and singular focus on education issues come across as a one-note symphony.
Either, of course, could surprise and leap ahead of party rival Villaraigosa to claim the coveted runner-up slot in June, which would short-circuit a potential, intriguing debate over public schools between Tony V., a longtime strong advocate of charters, and Newsom, a down-the-line California Teachers Association liberal.
Bottom line. If either Cox or Allen ends up second, given California’s current political dynamics, Newsom on June 6 can start picking out not only the drapes but also the carpets, furniture, and espresso machine for the governor’s office.
Asked during the debate if the primary would result in two Democrats facing each other in November, Newsom got the biggest laugh of the night:
“You know my position, Chuck,’’ he told moderator Todd, “I think a Republican would be ideal.”