Newsom ad shows odd incentives of California top-2 primary

Drew Furedi Antonio Villaraigosa
The Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the Democratic front-runner in the governor’s race, has said he wants to face a Republican in November and his latest ad makes it seem his preferred GOP candidate is John Cox.

Newsom is airing a television ad slamming Cox’s support for gun rights, noting “John Cox stands with Donald Trump and the NRA.”

It’s the kind of message that could benefit Cox, a businessman, as he seeks to consolidate Republican voters behind him instead of rival Travis Allen, a state assemblyman.

Neither won the state party’s endorsement at last weekend’s convention, but Cox is showing stronger than Allen in polling, has much more money and the backing of prominent California Republicans.

Politics has always made for strange bedfellows, but California’s top-two “jungle primary” created new incentives for odd alliances.

All candidates are on the same ballot in the June primary and the top two, regardless of party, advance to the runoff in November. That means candidates aren’t staying in their Republican or Democratic lanes as they would in a traditional primary.

Newsom has made it clear he hopes to face a Republican, and the ad allows him to draw an early contrast with Cox while making him more appealing to the Republican Party base.

Cox, meanwhile, is locked in a struggle for second place with former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a Democrat. Cross-party tangling is sure to be on display Tuesday night at a debate in San Jose, where the three, along with Allen and two other Democrats, will be on stage together for the last time ahead of the June 5 primary.

Newsom is not the only candidate to spend time talking about rivals from the other party. Democrat John Chiang’s campaign has called Allen “TrumpLite.” Allen has attacked Newsom’s support for California’s “sanctuary state” law for immigrants, while Cox has accused all his rivals of benefiting from a political system he calls corrupt.

Polls show Newsom has a decisive lead with a close contest for the second spot. Newsom’s road to the governor’s mansion — which he’s been openly traveling for years — would be easier if his rival comes from the GOP in a state where Democrats far outnumber Republicans. Gov. Jerry Brown is a Democrat and fellow party members control all statewide offices and the Legislature.

“This is not about winning the political argument in November,” said Thad Kousser, chair of the political science department at University of California, San Diego. “This is about having the governor’s race be over before June 6.”

For Republican Party officials, getting a candidate into the runoff has its benefits — a standard-bearer to carry the GOP message in a high-profile race while the party tries to fend off Democratic enthusiasm and hold onto congressional and legislative seats.

Chiang, Villaraigosa and fellow Democrat Delaine Eastin have all been sharply critical of Newsom in their own ways.

Villaraigosa has portrayed Newsom as a candidate focused on wealthy coastal liberals, while Chiang has accused the front-runner of offering unrealistic promises. Eastin is popular with insurgent supporters of Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid, who see her as a force to shake up government.

Asked last month which candidate he’d most like to run against, Newsom made his preference clear.

“I wanted to … say I’m focused on our campaign, but then I’d be misleading you,” he told The Associated Press. “We’d like to see a Republican. That’s the honest answer.”

It’s not unheard of for the leading candidate from one party to put his finger on the scale and try to pick his general election opponent. In 2002, Democratic Gov. Gray Davis relentlessly attacked moderate Republican Richard Riordan during the primary. Riordan lost to conservative Bill Simon, who Davis defeated in the general election.

Facing tough election prospects in the 2010 election, Democrats openly rooted for Republicans to nominate far-right supporters of the tea party movement in hotly contested U.S. Senate contests in Nevada and Delaware. The strategy worked; Democrats retained both seats.

Tuesday’s gubernatorial debate, hosted by the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and moderated by Chuck Todd, host of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” will be broadcast on NBC-owned stations in most California media markets including San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego.

It will be the last to include all the major candidates. Newsom has declined other debate invitations ahead of the primary.

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