California Election 2018: Updates and Analysis
The two men competing to be the next governor of California met for their first (and, alas, probably only) one-on-one stand-off today.
If you didn’t see it, that’s because the showdown—which was structured more as a spirited conversation than your standard dueling podiums-style debate—was on the radio, hosted by political reporter Scott Shafer, out of the San Francisco-based station KQED.
And if you didn’t hear it, that’s because it was on a Monday.
At 10 a.m.
On a federal holiday.
It’s a low-profile treatment for what may be the sole opportunity many voters have to evaluate the two candidates vying to become the next leader of the fifth largest economy on earth. But then again, few voters will have a difficult time distinguishing Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a liberal Democrat and former mayor of San Francisco, from John Cox, a conservative Republican with the backing of President Trump.
On housing, both candidates agreed that a shortage of production was to blame, but they offered very different solutions. Newsom argued that local governments often exert too much influence blocking production. “There’s a certain point where the state of California needs to intervene.”
Cox disagreed, arguing that the focus needs to be on reducing the cost of adding new units by cutting state environmental regulations.
The debate over housing quickly turned feisty as Newsom pointed to a number of his proposed solutions, including boosting the state’s low-income housing tax credit and allowing local governments to skim property tax revenue for affordable housing, and said that his opponent, Cox, offers only “an illusory strategy where he criticizes and identifies problems” but offers no substantive fixes.
Cox countered that all of Newsom’s solutions rely on “more government.”
Despite Cox’s best efforts to keep the conversation focused on bread-and-butter economic issues and his history of “fighting against the establishment,” Shafer asked about his views on gay marriage. In 2007, Cox said that allowing same-sex couples to marry would “open the floodgates to polygamy and bestiality.”
“I’ve evolved on those issues…just like Barack Obama,” said Cox.
When asked about gun control, the candidate criticized the shift in the conversation towards “guns and all of these social issues,” arguing that he is not running for governor to change state law on those topics, but is instead focused on affordability.
Cox was only too happy to talk about Proposition 6, the ballot measure that would repeal the recent increase in the state gas tax and other driver fees, which he has made a crux of his campaign.
Cox argued that the state’s Democratic leadership “didn’t want to do the tough job” of eliminating wasteful spending and cut environmental regulations and raised taxes and fees instead. He insisted that under his leadership the state would be able to fund necessary road repairs without the new revenue.
“We’re going to use the money efficiently and cut good deals with contractors,” he said.
Newsom once again called that plan “illusory.”
“His plan is to make things worst,” said Newsom. “You can eliminate every single position at Caltrans (the state transportation agency)…and still struggle to find the money.”
Likewise, Newsom seized the opportunity to turn the discussion of the state’s sanctuary policy, which limits local and state law-enforcement agencies’ cooperation with federal immigration authorities, into an opportunity to paint Cox as President Trump’s acolyte.
“He believes very passionately in building the wall, he believes in the elimination of sanctuary policy,” said Newsom. “Trump would have an advocate in Sacramento if he becomes the next governor.”
Cox ignored the reference to the president but said he would push for a repeal of California’s sanctuary state law. “If somebody is here illegally and they’re engaged in criminal activities I think it’s up to public officials to kick them out,” he said.
Similarly, the two candidates also offered different views on the state’s recent criminal justice reforms, including the recent elimination of cash bail.
“You’re replacing a private business with a lot more state workers,” said Cox, whereas Newsom called the new law “an extraordinary step forward and a civil rights reform.”
And while Newsom celebrated the state’s climate change policy, saying the state should play a “role not just nationally but internationally to lead,” Cox was more circumspect. He agreed that the planet was warming and that human activity “may very well” be partially to blame, but he questioned whether the benefit of dramatically cutting emissions across the state was worth the cost to electricity ratepayers and drivers.
That this year’s governor’s race will only feature one debate during the general election (there was a handful before the June primary) is unusual by historical standards. But it likely represents the new normal. As the LA Times reported yesterday, no race for governor or U.S. Senate has featured more than one post-primary debate since 2012. That may be a consequence of the growing political polarization of the state.
“I think there’s a growing cynicism about the utility of debates,” Cal State Sacramento political scientist Kimberly Nalder told the Times.
Cox’s strategy during the debate mirrors the one he has employed for months on the campaign trail. He has tried to saddle Newsom with responsibility for California’s high gas taxes, it’s high poverty rate, housing costs and every other economic woe facing the state. As a social conservative who opposes abortion, Cox has largely steered clear of those issues.
“This campaign is about change versus status quo,” he said. “Gavin has been part of the political class that has led this state downward.”
There’s a poetic irony that Newsom should be held responsible for so many of the state’s problems, given that he has occasionally griped that the post of lieutenant governor offers little in the way of actual responsibility. But as a Bay Area Democrat, Newsom certainly represents more of a continuation of current policy than Cox.
For his part, Newsom also took a familiar tact in the debate this morning, arguing that Cox was “in lockstep with Trump and Trumpism.” To hear Newsom tell it, Cox is the president’s Midwestern alter-ego: a millionaire outsider with no political experience and ideas that are both unrealistic and unacceptable to most Californians.
In short, Cox hopes the election will be a referendum on the current political direction of the state, while Newsom wants every voter to have President Trump at front of mind as they fill in their ballot.
According to a recent poll from the Public Policy Institute of California, Newsom’s strategy appears more likely to succeed—and not just because he’s a Democrat in a blue state. Among likely voters, 61 percent disapprove of the way the Trump is handling the job. Meanwhile, by a slim 50-to-47 margin, more voters than not believe that California is headed in the right direction.
As the frontrunner in a blue state, Newsom could be seen to have little to gain from more frequent, visible debates. In the newest Target Book Insider Track Survey, which asks consultants, lobbyists and other political players in California politics from both sides of the aisle, 37 percent of respondents said Newsom shouldn’t bother with debates because there’s no upside for him, only the risk of a downside. But 63 percent said he should debate—either because it would be a needed endorsement of the American political process (30 percent) or politically smart (8 percent) or both (25 percent.
To dive deeper into the details about John Cox and Gavin Newsom—including video interviews and an ability to create a side-by-side comparison of both on the issues you care about—explore the CALmatters voter guide.
In any campaign, big money players get the most attention. But Democrats running in California’s seven most competitive congressional districts are vastly outraising Republicans in small-dollar donations, according to a review of campaign money compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
It’s a display of voter enthusiasm that can pay long-term dividends for beneficiaries.
Overall, Democratic candidates running in the seven GOP-held seats where Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in 2016 have raised $40 million to the Republicans’ $18.7 million. That’s a stunning turn of fortune from 2016 when Republicans running in those seats raised $17.7 million to the Democrats’ $5.7 million.
Democrats running in those seven districts raised $6.4 million in donations of less than $200, almost 10 times the $671,000 raised by Republicans through the first three quarters of 2018, campaign finance reports show.
“There has never been anything like this,” said Democratic strategist Bill Burton, who is involved in several congressional races in California. “Regular grassroots Americans are saying they want change in dozens of races across the country.”
- Altogether, Republican Congressman Jeff Denham of Turlock raised $4.1 million to Democratic challenger Josh Harder’s $6 million.
- Only 1.6 percent of Denham’s money is in small-dollar donations, while nearly 18 percent of Harder’s came in small amounts.
- Republican Congressman Steve Knight of Palmdale raised $2.1 million, but less than 2 percent has come in small increments.
- Knight’s Democratic challenger Katie Hill raised $6.26 million, including 21 percent in increments of less than $200.
Republicans have used outside spending funded by wealthy donors as an equalizer, although Democratic groups and funders including the League of Conservation Voters and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg are spending heavily to flip seats.
Donors who give less than $200 aren’t identified by name in federal disclosures, and may not live in the candidates’ district. But candidates know who they are, collect their email addresses and regularly send them solicitations.
Not all donors can afford to give the maximum $2,700 under federal law. But candidates can return to small-dollar donors multiple times to help fuel their campaign efforts, ranging from television ads to get-out-the-vote drives. They also know that people who give money vote and volunteer, if not for them then for candidates in their home districts.
The phenomenon extends to districts where no Democratic expert thinks Democratic challengers have any prayer of winning.
Democrat Audrey Denney has outraised Republican Congressman Doug LaMalfa of Richvale in a deep red district in far Northern California, $888,000 to LaMalfa’s $810,000. Almost 40 percent of Denney’s money, $350,000, has come in small increments, compared with 2.8 percent of LaMalfa’s money.
There are Republican exceptions, much of it Trump-related:
- Little known Republican Omar Navarro raised $546,000 in small sums in his long-shot challenge against Democratic Congresswoman Maxine Waters of Los Angeles. She and Trump regularly tangle.
- Tulare County Congressman Devin Nunes has used his close alliance with Trump to raise his profile nationally, and to raise money—$10.5 million for this election, almost half of it in small-dollar donations. Challenger Andrew Janz has raised 54 percent of his $7.2 million from small donors in the first half of the year.
- Republican Congressman Tom McClintock of Elk Grove raised 24 percent of his $1.5 million from small donors. McClintock, whose tenure in office dates to 1982, has cultivated his list of GOP regulars for decades.
Overall, however, challenger Jessica Morse has outraised McClintock, pulling in $2.8 million.
If you shop like a lot of us, you narrow your choices to two options and then match up their features to determine the best fit for you. Consumer Reports has perfected this approach when you’re torn between, say, a Honda versus a Toyota.
Now CALmatters gives you the opportunity to size up finalists for every statewide office in the California 2018 election—from governor to attorney general to state schools superintendent and more—with that kind of comparison tool. Select the issues that matter most and see how the candidates agree and differ. It’s just one of the unique features you’ll find on our 2018 voter guide.
What’s the sound of one man debating? California voters got an idea today at the first and only scheduled candidate forum in the 2018 U.S. Senate race.
State Sen. Kevin de León may have debated Sen. Dianne Feinstein at the Public Policy Institute of California’s downtown San Francisco office this afternoon, but Feinstein wasn’t interested in debating him.
De León, the former president pro tempore of the state senate who is nonetheless not well known by many voters, did his best to distinguish himself from California’s long-time sitting senator, criticizing her as a representative of a “status quo” that “keeps resisting the resistance.”
“I wish Democrats in Washington would fight like hell for Dreamers just the way that Donald J. Trump and the Republicans fight like hell for their stupid wall,” he told the institute’s president, Mark Baldassare, in a not so veiled dig at his opponent across the stage. “That lack of courage, always backpedaling every single time, is not the type of leadership that we need today.”
Feinstein largely focused on her record as a four-plus term senator for California, speaking about her policy proposals, while largely declining to engage her opponent. When she did acknowledge de León, it was generally to agree with him.
The divergent approaches to the “conversation,” as it was billed, were in part a result of the format. Rather than the response/counter-response structure of more traditional campaign debates, this was a mediated discussion between the two candidates. This made for a fairly staid and largely amicable hour of policy discussion. That certainly favors Feinstein, who leads in the polls and name recognition. De León, meanwhile, was hoping to change the nature of the race by tarnishing Feinstein’s brand and making a splash with new voters.
On policy matters, the two candidates disagreed on relatively little.
They shared the view, for example, that sexual assault allegations against Justice Brett Kavanaugh should be revisited. They agreed that children should no longer be separated at the border and that immigration reform is long overdue. They both oppose the twin Delta tunnels water project and support more gun control.
When de León tried to make a point that Democrats in Washington (including Feinstein) let voters down by failing to renew the federal ban on so-called assault weapons when they controlled Congress in 2009, the senior senator did not take the bait.
“I don’t think we disagree on this,” she said. “I think we agree.”
“We can move on then, unless…?” said Baldassare, looking at Feinstein. She said nothing and they moved on.
Likewise, when de León laid the blame for the Iraq War on Feinstein, who voted to authorize the invasion, or called out her support for the Homeland Security Act, which authorized Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Feinstein let the comments slide.
That the policy preferences of the two candidates overlap so much is hardly surprising. They’re both Democrats. Under California’s “top two” electoral system, the first and second place winners in the primary move onto the general election, regardless of party. On June 5th, Feinstein won 44 percent of the vote, while de León won 12 percent. The remainder was split across 30 other candidates.
But the two candidates did part ways on two issues: health care reform and the impeachment of President Trump.
Feinstein said that she supports a public option health insurance program for individuals to buy into, reducing the age for Medicare eligibility, allowing Medicare to negotiate for lower prescription drug prices, and increasing health insurance subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.
De León supports expanding Medicare to everyone, brushing off criticisms that such a program is unaffordable.
“Washington always seems to find the money for its priorities: two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan…tax cuts for the rich,” he said.
In the closest thing to a direct exchange, Feinstein argued that Democratic numbers in the Senate precluded the possibility of removing the president from office.
“What changes things are elections,” she said. But de León was not convinced by the arithmetic.
“We need Democrats in Washington D.C. to have the courage of their convictions…regardless of what the makeup is of the House as well as the U.S. Senate,” he said toward the end of the event.
One area in which de León held his fire was the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Though he had been sharply critical of Feinstein’s handling of the sexual assault allegations by Palo Alto psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford during the hearings, he dropped that tactic.
Today’s low-profile sit down echoes last week’s gubernatorial debate, when Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom squared off with his Republican opponent John Cox in a mid-morning radio appearance. That too was the one and only candidate forum scheduled during the general election, held at a definitively non-prime time hour, eliciting complaints from the underdog. Cox has clamored for additional, higher profile debates. Likewise, de León has questioned whether the PPIC event even meets the definition.
“Hardworking Californians, people who work two, three jobs can’t take off in the middle of the day to turn on a livestream and watch this conversation,” a campaign spokesman said last week.
De León faces long odds in toppling Feinstein. Even so, that the event took place at all suggests that this race represents an unusually strong challenge to California’s senior U.S. senator. Feinstein hasn’t gone head-to-head with an electoral opponent—whether in debate or mere “conversation”—since 2000. De León was sure to remind the audience of that point.
“I think the last time Senator Feinstein had an opponent on the same stage was about 18 years ago,” he said, turning to his opponent. “So this is historic and I want to thank you very much for this opportunity to be here with you today.”