Commentary: It looks like a two-man race for California governor

Well folks, it looks like we may have an old-fashioned, down-to-the-wire political race this year for governor, something Californians haven’t seen for quite a few years.

Antonio Villaraigosa, the former mayor of Los Angeles, has pulled into a virtual tie with Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the long-time frontrunner, in the latest statewide poll by the Public Policy Institute of California.

Newsom’s standing in PPIC’s polling hasn’t budged much in the last year. He was at 22 percent among likely voters last May; 23 percent in September; 26 percent in December and then dropped back to 23 percent in PPIC’s January poll.

Meanwhile, Villaraigosa, just 17 percent in May and 12 percent in September, clawed back to 17 percent in December and climbed to 21 percent in January.

Most interestingly, the two Democrats are in a dead heat at 32 percent each among Democratic voters, erasing Newsom’s 12 percent lead in December and indicating that next weekend’s Democratic state convention in San Diego could be very lively.

State Treasurer John Chiang, another Democrat, remains stuck in single digits, as do Democrat Delaine Eastin and all three of the Republican hopefuls.

Amanda Renteria, a former Hillary Clinton aide who has been working for Attorney General Xavier Becerra, also pulled papers to run last week, but isn’t in the polling mix yet, of course.

She has the potential of taking some Latino voter support from Villaraigosa, but the gap between the two frontrunners and everyone else is immense. Unless she or one of the other current also-rans can pull off a miracle, it’s likely that Newsom and Villaraigosa will be the June primary election’s top two vote-getters and then face each other in November for the governorship.

The Newsom-Villaraigosa duel has tightened as the two frontrunners have sharpened their ideological differences.

Newsom, who came into politics as a pro-business moderate, has shifted to the left, embracing the uber-liberal Berniecrat wing of the Democratic Party and its agenda, such as universal health care.

Meanwhile, Villaraiogosa, a one-time labor union organizer, has hewed closer to the centerline of the state as a whole, clearly looking ahead to November.

Villaraigosa’s positioning was highlighted last week when he gained endorsements from police organizations, while Newsom’s was underscored by an endorsement from the very liberal Service Employees International Union. He also has support from the California Nurses Association, which has pushed for universal health care and been the Berniecrat wing’s most visible patron.

If, as now seems increasingly likely, Newsom and Villaraigosa are destined for a head-to-head duel, the early ideological positioning could be the key factor.

Newsom seems to be betting that the antipathy to President Trump is so fierce in California and such a motivating factor that embracing the Democratic left will be an advantage. However, he should be worried that after years of official and unofficial campaigning, he’s still favored by less than a quarter of the state’s likely voters.

Villaraigosa, meanwhile, is betting on California’s history over the past several decades of electing more-or-less centrist governors, including the man both hope to succeed, Jerry Brown. His dramatic rise in the polls could open the wallets of potential campaign donors and give him the wherewithal to make it a real horse race.

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