With the 2017 legislative session completed – for better or worse – California politicians are raising money, hiring campaign staffers and mapping strategies for the 2018 elections that will:

  • Bring California a new governor, fill at least four other statewide offices and perhaps – although not likely – elect a new U.S. senator;
  • Determine whether Democrats retain their two-thirds “supermajorities” in both legislative houses;
  • Reveal whether enough Republican congressional seats change hands to overturn GOP control of Congress; and
  • Decide the fate of ballot measures whose number and importance are still up in the air.

The governorship is obviously the big prize. It’s almost certain that another Democrat will follow Jerry Brown, but who?

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the former mayor of San Francisco, leads the polls, but not overwhelmingly, and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is his closest rival.

Second place is important, because of the state’s “top-two” primary system. With only token Republican candidates, it’s likely that the November 2018 election will feature two Democrats.

Democratic Treasurer John Chiang lurks in third place, but he’s campaigning hard and is at least a long-shot bet to finish second.

If it turns out to be a Newsom-Villaraigosa contest, ideological positioning will be important, because of the potentially decisive role of Republican and independent voters.

Newsom would be more likely to garner support from the state’s resurgent Democratic left vis-à-vis Villaraigosa, who battled with unions as mayor and has refused to endorse such leftish shibboleths as state-level universal health care.

Whether we have a U.S. Senate contest is still a bit uncertain. Clearly, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who has served for 25 years and will be 85 next year, has considered retirement, much to the dismay of party leaders in Washington, who have 35 Senate seats up next year and didn’t want an expensive battle in California.

Feinstein hasn’t announced but is very likely to run again. However, aBerkeley IGS Poll this month found a nine-percentage-point drop to 50 percent in her approval among voters, thanks to sharp criticism from the party’s left wing about her moderate positions.

Republicans could not defeat Feinstein next year, but she could face a left-wing challenger who would force her to make at least a token campaign effort.

The growing assumption in political circles is that Feinstein wins another term but likely resigns sometime later. It would allow the governor who’s elected next year to name her successor and create a potential feeding frenzy among ambitious Democrats in Washington and Sacramento. They are legion.

The state’s legislative situation is simple. Democrats won very narrow supermajorities in 2012, lost them in 2014 and regained them in 2016, thus empowering them to do certain things, such as put constitutional amendments on the ballot or raise taxes, without Republican votes. It boils down to a handful of the 100 legislative seats that will be up next year.

The congressional situation is also fairly simple. President Donald Trump lost to Democrat Hillary Clinton in half of the state’s 14 Republican-held congressional districts, and Democrats hope to capture at least a few of them next year. But if they don’t make inroads, their chances of regaining control of Congress are scant. So big bucks will pour into those districts, most of them in Southern California.

It’s a proxy war between Bakersfield’s Kevin McCarthy, the House majority leader, and San Francisco’s Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader.

And, of course, nothing that happens next year will be permanent. It merely sets the parameters for 2020’s political duels.

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Dan Walters has been a journalist for more than 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times...