Why Newsom Should be Rooting for Faulconer to Run

Timm Herdt
Timm Herdt writes on California policy and politics. He formerly covered the Capitol for the Ventura County Star

After last year, you may not want to hear this, but in California another election year has already arrived.

The reason is that under the top two primary in a one-party-dominant state, ultimate outcomes in 2018 will be largely determined by the makeup of the candidate field in the primary. And for potential candidates, the time is almost at hand to decide whether to enter the field.

At the statewide level, what this means is that at all eyes should be on San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer. Not only may he be the only potential Republican candidate with a strong chance to advance out of the top-two primary, but whether he is in or out will likely determine whether any Democrat other than Gavin Newsom has a chance to win in November 2018.

There were any number of district-level examples in 2016 in which the makeup of candidates on the primary ballot determined the November outcome.

At the statewide level, however, the 2016 example was imperfect. Yes, it resulted in the first-ever Democrat-on-Democrat statewide election, but the primary ballot was a mess: 8 Democrats, 11 Republicans (none of whom could top 8 percent of the vote), 11 no-party-preference candidates, two Libertarians, 1 Green and 1 Peace and Freedom.

Sen. Kamala Harris won the primary with 38 percent, doubling the total of second-place finisher, former Rep. Loretta Sanchez, and the race was over. It was simply silly for anyone to think that Sanchez – an erratic, flamboyant, modestly funded candidate with a small political base – could somehow find a way to get Republicans to coalesce around her candidacy to form a competitive coalition of Latino Democrats and Republicans with nowhere else to turn.

While Sanchez did perform well in counties that had large numbers of both Latinos and Republicans (Fresno, Kern, Riverside, Orange), she fared poorly in white Republican strongholds such as Placer and El Dorado.

The governor’s race could be a different story.

Given that registered Republicans now account for just 26 percent of the California electorate, anyone with the word “Republican” next to his or her name must be considered only a marginal candidate. In the general election, it’s a given that a Democrat will win.

Even Faulconer, with his San Diego base, progressive climate policies, stand-offish approach to President Trump, and potential appeal to traditional GOP donors, falls into that category. But all those strengths would likely guarantee him one of the top two spots in the primary.

(Unless a conservative Republican with sufficient resources were to also run, which would create a whole new equation.)

But without Faulconer, California Republicans would likely be left – as they were in the 2016 Senate race – with only sub-marginal candidates. That would open the door for a second Democrat to emerge out of the primary. And Anthony Villaraigosa, John Chiang and the self-funded Steve Westly all would have the discipline and potentially the resources that Sanchez lacked – and therefore the ability to run a center-based campaign to realistically challenge the liberal Newsom.

(Another self-funded possibility, Tom Steyer, would have a very difficult credibility problem were he to try to run to the right of Newsom.)

It’s still early in this 2017 election year. But the decisions of who gets in and who gets out will predetermine the 2018 outcome. Looking over the landscape at this point, Newsom must be silently mouthing a personal plea: “Run, Kevin, run.”

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