Trends Emerge at USC Gubernatorial Debate

Matt Klink
President, Klink Campaigns

Six candidates – four Democrats and two Republicans – squared off on Saturday at the University of Southern California in the first of what will be many debates to help Californians decide who should (and should not) be our state’s next governor.

No knock-out punch was delivered…it would have been shocking if anyone even drew blood. With six candidates on stage and rapid-fire one-minute answers, no candidate was looking for anything other than to work-up a good sweat in what promises to be a multi-million-dollar 2018 campaign battle.

Here are four trends that emerged on Saturday.

First, the Democrats had an inherent advantage in an overly friendly (and left-leaning) audience. Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom was the most polished but drew the most attacks from his five competitors. Newsom commanded facts and figures, and adeptly squeezed specifics into one-minute responses. Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa played to his strength and had the luck of following Assemblyman Travis Allen (R-Huntington Beach) in responses to questions. Allen’s far-right commentary generated consistent, negative audience reaction and, by doing so, allowed Villaraigosa to tee-up easy rejoinders that played well to the crowd. Villaraigosa spoke with confidence that the state’s next governor will have to come through Los Angeles, where one-in-four of the votes necessary to achieve victory will be cast. John Chiang, the mild-mannered State Treasurer, spoke confidently and effectively about his ability to get things done. Chiang’s challenge is that those Californians not focused on politics don’t know who he is despite the fact that he has been elected statewide multiple times. Finally, Delaine Eastin had some great one-liners but her campaign hasn’t gained traction. She will likely have on-going trouble doing so in a crowded – and better funded – Democratic field.

Second, the two Republicans on stage, Travis Allen and businessman John Cox, were more interested in taking “insider” GOP jabs at each other than they were in communicating with the audience. They were competing to “out-Republican” each other at a venue dominated by Los Angeles’ more progressive elements. This questionable strategy – whether by design or because neither could risk the temptation to be crowned as “the GOP front-runner” – will yield the “winner” with 10-13 percentage points and a quick exit following the June primary. Will Doug Ose’s future participation clear-up or further muddy the GOP field?

Third, it’s evident that whomever the likely Democratic nominee (or nominees given the state’s open primary system) believes that victory next November will be achieved by who can promise more spending. The word of the day by the four Democrats was “invest” – code for tax and spend. All policy prescriptions – education, health care, transportation and climate change – could be solved or helped by new or more investment. All four Democrats backed the State’s recently approved 12-cent gasoline tax and car registration increase. No Democrat talked about the need to improve California’s business climate, lessen the tax or regulatory burden or take steps to bolster California’s small business community.

Fourth, all Democratic gubernatorial candidates supported single payer healthcare – some more enthusiastically than others. Villaraigosa and Chiang voiced support for single payer in concept, but expressed concern about how to pay for it. Newsom was the most direct in advocating for a single payer system and sounded the most determined to make government-run healthcare a reality. When challenged by Chiang and Villaraigosa about single payer policy flip-flops and his lack of a plan to pay for it, Newsom indicated that he would implement single payer as California’s next governor and, without getting specific as to funding sources, indicated, “you can’t tell me that implementing single payer will cost more than the current system.”

Saturday’s debate was noteworthy because it was the first opportunity to see all the candidates on one stage and compare them. It was eye-opening to see how the four Democratic candidates all speak of “investment” and policies requiring more government control and regulation. It was troubling to see if and how the two GOP candidates (three, when Doug Ose is included) struggle to make themselves relevant with a voting age population that’s trending away from the Republican Party.

The next six months promises to be anything but boring. Bring on the 2018 campaign!

Matt Klink is president of Klink Campaigns, Inc., a public affairs and strategic communications firm headquartered in Los Angeles, California. His firm’s website is www.klinkcampaigns.com.

Comment on this article


Please note, statements and opinions expressed on the Fox&Hounds Blog are solely those of their respective authors and may not represent the views of Fox&Hounds Daily or its employees thereof. Fox&Hounds Daily is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the site's bloggers.