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California Governor’s Race Is All About Second Place

Ben Adler / Capital Public Radio

Republican gubernatorial candidate John Cox speaks with reporters after a campaign stop in Sacramento.

Ben Adler / Capital Public Radio

Gavin Newsom isn’t shy about saying who he hopes to face if, as widely expected, he finishes first in this June’s primary election.

Consider what the Democratic lieutenant governor told moderator Chuck Todd in a debate earlier this month:

“You know my position, Chuck. I think a Republican would be ideal in a general election,” Newsom said. “And either one of these will do,” he added to laughter, as he gestured to San Diego businessman John Cox and Orange County Assemblyman Travis Allen — both of whom Newsom feels he could trounce in deep blue California.

So goes the 2018 governor’s race: With less than two weeks until California’s primary, it is all about who will come in second.

The top two primary finishers, regardless of political party, advance to the November general election. With first place all but set, the candidates — and outside groups — are going all-in: either to make the race competitive in November or effectively end it next month.

Newsom’s campaign is pulling out all the stops to ensure that he faces off against Cox, running ads attacking him — not to hurt him but to help.

Republican strategist Cassandra Pye called this maneuvering “a little bit of a game of driving up name ID” to make sure GOP voters know who Cox is.

She says Newsom would much rather face Cox in November instead of, say, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the Democrat closest to Newsom in the polls.

Cox, of course, shares the same goal as Newsom. And he thinks voters do, too.

“They don’t want Tweedledee and Tweedledum,” he said at a campaign stop Wednesday in Sacramento. “They want a true choice.”

Cox, who failed to win the California Republican Party endorsement at its convention earlier this month, just picked up an even bigger endorsement — in a tweet.

“I’m honored to have the president’s support,” Cox said. “I want to achieve results like he is.”

Cox didn’t vote for Donald Trump; in fact, he didn’t even mention the president in his convention speech. But most polls indicate he’s in second or third place, with Allen further back.

Pye says a Republican at the top of the ticket in November is vital for the president — and his ally, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield — because of the fight to control the House of Representatives.

“What they want is to have a Republican to drive out turnout so it helps in those congressional seats that may or may not determine if Kevin McCarthy becomes speaker,” Pye said.

There is, however, a counter-attack in this battle for second place: an ad aimed at Republicans that name-checks Allen as a “conservative” to catch their attention, then slams Cox.

The ad comes from an outside group that backs Villaraigosa. It’s run by the political arm of the California Charter Schools Association, which has raised $17 million from just a handful of megadonors — mostly for ads praising Villaraigosa to boost his familiarity with voters.

Gary Borden with the charter group says it plans to maintain its effort during crunch time. “We think that, with two weeks left, there is time to continue to surge,” he said. “We think that Antonio is surging now. We think that John Cox is probably capped about where he is. So we’ll keep doing what we’re doing.”

Villaraigosa declined an interview for this story.

Meanwhile, Newsom appears to be leaving no stone unturned. He launched ads this week attacking Villaraigosa and the other Democrat fighting for second, Treasurer John Chiang.

Polls suggest Chiang has yet to find traction. He’s running an ad attacking Villaraigosa, hoping to slip past him. And Chiang insists he has momentum.

“We’re facing massive attacks from a couple of the major institutional special interests in Sacramento. We’re under attack from Gavin Newsom’s campaign,” Chiang says. “You’re not under fierce attack unless you’re moving in the polls.”

It’s anyone’s guess how this crazy race will shake out. But a poll released Wednesday night from the Public Policy Institute of California shows Newsom leading Cox, 25 percent to 19 percent. Villaraigosa is third, at 15 percent, followed by Allen, Chiang and former state schools chief Delaine Eastin.

 Election 2018

Ben Adler

Capitol Bureau Chief

Capitol Bureau Chief Ben Adler first became a public radio listener in the car on his way to preschool – though not necessarily by choice. Now, he leads Capital Public Radio’s state Capitol coverage, which airs on NPR stations across California.  Read Full Bio 

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