On stage for 90 minutes tonight in San Jose, the top six contenders to be California’s next governor echoed existing positions, with no one managing to score a breakout moment or strike a fatal blow. And there isn’t much time left.
California’s “top two” primary on June 5 will weed out all but the first and second place winners. The debate, moderated by NBC’s “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd, is likely the last high-profile opportunity for one of the other three Democrats and two Republicans to claim the second spot behind Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who entered the California Theatre auditorium as the presumed front-runner and almost certainly left with that presumption intact.
Otherwise, uncertainty prevailed:
- Democratic former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa gave a subdued performance—will that be enough to sway the moderates he needs?
- Democratic former state Schools Superintendent Delaine Eastin was fiery and folksy—will that boost her lagging popularity for liberal voters only now tuning in?
- Will State Treasurer John Chiang’s experiment with more aggressive attacks against the opponents he referred to as “Gavin and Antonio” pay off?
- Republican businessman John Cox frequently referred to everyone else as “the politicians”—will that outsider appeal give him the edge among conservatives?
- Or will GOP voters swoon for the Trumpian one-liners of GOP Assemblyman Travis Allen—allowing him to eat into Cox’s support and thus inadvertently help Villaraigosa edge Cox out of the secondary slot?
As for Newsom, the former mayor of San Francisco who consistently places first in the polls continued to toe the progressive line, reiterating his support of single payer healthcare, the state’s sanctuary state policy and universal preschool education.
Newsom also aimed a few barbs at the two Republicans on stage, lumping them in with President Trump, who remains unpopular in the state—while not coincidentally raising their profiles over those of his Democratic rivals.
“One thing I’m going to do is push back against John Cox, Travis Allen, and Donald Trump and Trumpism—this is the kind of rhetoric that has no place in California,” he said, delivering one of the biggest applause lines of the evening.
That mirrors a recent strategy of his campaign. Late last week, Team Newsom released an ad linking Cox with the National Rifle Association. Many political observers interpreted that as a move to boost Cox’s name profile among Republican voters, increasing his chances of grabbing the number two spot in June.
Asked which party he would rather face in the general election, Newsom was remarkably honest: “A Republican would be ideal…Any one of these would do,” he said, gesturing to both Cox and Allen.
The remaining candidates on stage spent the evening trying to find their own path into the second place spot.
Chiang struck out at both Newsom and Villaraigosa as former mayors who failed to adequately address affordability and homelessness concerns in their respective cities. He also mentioned the two Democrats’ past extramarital affairs in the context of the #MeToo movement.
That’s a departure from Chiang’s self-cultivated reputation as a boring-in-a-good-way number cruncher—“the progressive who can balance a checkbook,” as he puts it. Despite a well-financed start and lengthy resume in state government, Chiang has still languished in single-digits in the polls. If he has any chance of making it past June, he will need to beat out Villaraigosa and at least one of the Republicans.
During the debate, Villaraigosa was having none of it. “I don’t respond to fake news,” he said.
In fact, despite his own recent decline in the most major nonpartisan polls, losing his second place spot to Cox, the former LA mayor largely remained above the fray, projecting himself as moderate in both character, as well as in his politics. He stuck to his main campaign theme of restoring the “California Dream” through a pragmatic, somewhat more business-friendly progressive politics.
Meanwhile, the two Republicans picked up where they left off at the California Republican Party’s convention last weekend, where both candidates tried to consolidate the support of the conservative vote by touting their conservative bonafides and taking swipes at one another. Neither earned the formal backing of the party.
Allen also aimed one of the sharpest zingers of the night at Newsom, citing an affair that Newsom had while he was the mayor of San Francisco with a woman who was his appointments secretary and the wife of his friend and campaign manager.
“If you can’t trust Gavin with his best friend’s wife,” he asked, “how can you trust him with your state?”
Eastin offered a repeat performance of her previous debates, reiterating her support of single payer healthcare, tuition-free higher education, and universal pre-school. She also chimed in on the politics of #MeToo.
“What’s missing is courage and vision and heart and a sense of self-control that makes certain that you are focused on the issues at hand and not on how much fun you can have,” she said.
Often described by debate-watchers as the most charismatic candidate—not to mention the only woman—she nonetheless has polled the lowest among the other six, failing to garner broader name recognition.
As Villaraigosa pointed out at a press conference after the event, the format, which only allowed each candidate a minute to respond to each question, did not allow for a particularly deep dive into any one policy issue.
“I don’t think any one debate is going to get you into the top two,” he said. “I think all the candidates did what they came in wanting to do.”
To learn more about where the leading candidates stand on policy, check out the CALmatters voter guide.