Second Place in Gov. Race Still Up for Grabs Despite Newt’s Assessment

Warren Olney
Long time television, radio and print journalist, host of To the Point podcast and two time winner of the Los Angeles Society of Professional Journalists Distinguished Journalist Award.

Republicans are having a hard time making a case that they still matter in California. One such effort was last week’s op-ed piece by Newt Gingrich for Fox News: “[Republican] John Cox has “great potential… to win the governorship seven months from now.”

The Cox campaign has circulated the Gingrich assessment, ramping it up even more: “A recent survey indicates [Cox] is now within striking distance of being elected governor of the infamously liberal state in November.”

Now, let’s take a look at the numbers.

That “recent survey” was from the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), showing that Cox doubled his support since the previous poll of likely voters.  But PPIC President Mark Baldassare struck a cautionary note when he told me, “Going from 7 percent to 14 percent isn’t going to make you the next Governor.”

Cox led Democrat Antonio Villagaigosa by two points, 14% to 12%, giving him a two-point lead for second place in the poll.  The Gingrich-Cox argument makes that sound hugely important, since the top two vote-getters in the June primary will make the November run-off—regardless of party.   But, consider this: Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom leads all candidates in the PPIC poll with 28%.

What Newsom supporters saw in the PPIC survey was not a Republican threat, but a hopeful sign that maybe–just maybe–Newsom might not have to face off with another Democrat.

Baldassare points out there are two more Democrats in the primary, John Chiang (6%) and Delaine Eastin (5%) and one more Republican, Travis Allen (10%).  Cox and Villaraigos are in a higher tier, but he says,  “They’re essentially tied, so it’s even hard to say that Cox is ahead of Villaraigosa.”

This week new PPIC findings have Newsom at 26%, Cox at 15% and Villaraigosa at 13% with the rest essentially where they were before.   As to second place, Baldassare says, “there’s no real change.”

The most reliable indicators of what happens next are party registration and recent political history.  Democrats hold an increasingly massive edge in the Golden State, and no Republican has been chosen for any office statewide since celebrity Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was re-elected in 2006.

So, it appears the best Cox can hope for is to become this year’s sacrificial lamb.   Even if he shares the November ballot with Newsom, his defeat is as certain as anything in politics can ever be.  But he still could make a difference if his name gets that kind of prominence—by bringing out Republican voters who would otherwise stay home due to lack of interest.

That’s where Gingrich’s op-ed touches down in reality.  He writes,  “Having Cox on the election ballot in November will be vital for keeping the Republican majority in the U.S House of Representatives.”

GOP voters might not know the names of the Party’s incumbent Congress members or its candidates for open seats.  But, if they turn out because of Cox, they’ll be likely to vote the Party line.

That gets major emphasis in the Gingrich op-ed: “Republicans currently hold only 14 of California’s 53 House seats, all of which will be on the ballot this November.  Any losses or gains in California could have a serious impact on the ability of Republicans to keep control of the House.”

With Paul Ryan stepping down, it’s possible that Californian Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield will be the next House Speaker.  There’s no telling if that might make a difference in other California congressional races.

But that first PPIC poll had more bad news for the GOP.  While half likely voters viewed this year’s election as more important than those of the past, more Democrats (59%) felt that way than Republicans (42%).  Beyond that, 53% of all likely voters said they’d support a Democrat for Congress with just 39% for a Republican.

Baldassare says a controversial ballot issue could help bring Republicans to the polls, but the effort to qualify a repeal of the gasoline tax has yet to qualify for November.  And, “there’s so much coming out of Washington—North Korea, Syria, troops at the border—it’s very hard to get attention for a statewide election.“

President Trump is notoriously unpopular in California.  Whether the state is “infamously liberal,” as the Cox campaign has it, depends on your point of view. But there’s little doubt that the next Governor will be a Democrat just like the current one… Newt Gingrich to the contrary not withstanding.

Listen to Warren’s To the Point podcast here.

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