Commentary: Handicapping California’s governorship game

So far, electing a new governor of California has resembled a game of musical chairs more than a horse race.

Every fortnight, it seems, brings the announcement of a new candidate and/or a new opt-out, and every change in the lineup alters the odds of who will survive June’s top-two primary and win the right to duke it out in November.

When Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and billionaire gadfly Tom Steyer decided not to run, for instance, it was good news to former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, removing two very formidable figures and making it more likely, therefore, that Villaraigosa would be one of the top-two finishers in June.

Since then, Villaraigosa has climbed into a virtual tie with Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom in the polls, increasing the odds for a Democrat vs. Democrat runoff in the fall.

Those odds improved even more when Doug Ose, a former congressman, declared his candidacy because with two other Republicans already running, the already meager GOP voter pool would be stretched even thinner.

And then, late last month, Ose dropped out as suddenly as he had dropped in, citing an inability to raise enough money to make a credible run.

Republican Party leaders have left little doubt that they’d like one of the two remaining Republicans, San Diego businessman and philanthropist John Cox and Huntington Beach Assemblyman Travis Allen, to also exit and improve the very slender chances of one making the November ballot.

Those leaders know that a Republican would have virtually no chance of winning the governorship, but having a candidate in November might improve turnout of GOP voters and help the party stave off a concerted effort by Democrats to flip several Republican-held congressional seats in Southern California.

Were November’s ballot to have only Democrats facing each other for the governorship and a U.S. Senate seat, there would be little motivation for Republicans to vote.

Finally, Democrat Amanda Renteria’s entry into the field of would-be governors alters the odds once again.

Even if Renteria, a former Hillary Clinton aide, failed candidate for Congress in 2014 and most recently an aide to Attorney General Xavier Becerra, doesn’t mount more than a token campaign, by just having her name on the June ballot she would receive at least a few percentage points of the vote.

Whatever votes Renteria gets would probably be pulled from Villaraigosa, who counts on strong Latino backing in his quest for the governorship. It would marginally lower his chances of surviving the top-two primary.

Hypothetically, were Villaraigosa to see his support eroded by Renteria, having five Democrats divvying up the June vote could allow a Republican to sneak into the runoff.

That would help GOP leaders in their quest to boost Republican voter turnout. It would also immensely benefit the top Democrat, presumably Newsom, who could then effortlessly sail to victory in November in what is and will be a very blue state.

All of these scenarios reflect how the top-two primary system dramatically alters the state’s political dynamics, giving also-rans a second chance of winning.

That’s why, for instance, Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones harbors hopes of becoming attorney general. He’d have virtually no chance of unseating a fellow Democrat, appointed incumbent Becerra, under the old closed-primary system, but now probably will face him twice, once in June and again in November.

With Newsom seemingly destined to be one of November’s two gubernatorial aspirants, everyone else wants to be sitting in one of the two remaining chairs when the music stops in June.

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