The conventional wisdom going into the 2018 California gubernatorial contest was that Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, both Democrats, were likely to finish first and second in the June 5 primary. Under California’s top two system, in which all candidates regardless of party run in the same primary, that would place them both in the general election. A January poll from the highly reputable Public Policy Institute of California showed the two virtually tied with Newsom at 23 percent and Villaraigosa at 21 percent, with no other candidate in the large field in double digits.
But as the campaign took shape, Newsom gained strength while Villaraigosa steadily lost ground. A March PPIC poll showed Newsom at 28 percent, with self-funding Republican John Cox (who had been running early ads) moving ahead of Villaraigosa with 14 percent as opposed to the former mayor’s 12 percent. Indeed, Villaraigosa looked to be in danger of slipping into fourth place behind another Republican, state legislator Travis Allen, who had 10 percent.
But then the cavalry came to the rescue for Villaraigosa in mid-April, as the San Francisco Chronicle reported:
A big-money ad war in California’s governor’s race officially started Thursday when a billionaire-backed independent expenditure campaign touting Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa launched a “seven-figure” buy that will blast a commercial on TV screens statewide for at least a week.
That ad, and more like it (along with fliers and other attention-grabbers in what will likely be a low-turnout primary) was the product of an independent expenditure effort backed by the California Charter Schools Association, which has been a big force in battles with teachers’ unions over charter schools in Los Angeles and at the state level as well. Its backers, a nationwide network of billionaires supporting expanded charter schools, as California political reporter Lauren Rosenhall noted, raised $17 million for the Villaraigosa ad effort, including “$7 million from Netflix CEO Reed Hastings; $2.5 million from former housing developer Eli Broad; and $2 million each from from investment firm manager William Oberndorf and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg.”
The charter backers had found an ally when in Villaraigosa (whose own background was in the labor movement) during his tenure as mayor from 2005 to 2013:
[A]s mayor, he became the most prominent Democrat in California to criticize teachers groups, blasting Los Angeles’ union as “the largest obstacle to creating quality schools.”
He unsuccessfully tried to seize control of the Los Angeles Unified School District, arguing that city schools needed to be dramatically overhauled because they were failing the neediest students. He eventually took over more than a dozen struggling campuses through a nonprofit he founded.
While Newsom has not opposed charter schools, he has called for a freeze on their expansion until proper accountability measures have been adopted, and won the endorsement of Villaraigosa’s old enemies in the California Teachers Association. So an old war has been renewed with the California governor’s race being simply a new landscape.
The ads the charter billionaires are running don’t dwell on education policy, and in fact, focus on aspects of Villaraigosa’s record that might appeal to voters otherwise attracted to the Republican candidates with whom he is battling for a general election spot:
This strategy could help down the road if Villaraigosa does finish second and needs the votes of serious Republicans in a general election battle with Newsom, who is being backed by most progressive political organizations. Team Villaraigosa caught a break recently when the California Republican State Convention failed to make an endorsement for Cox or Allen, leaving both of them fighting for the same relatively small pool of voters. But now Donald Trump has jumped into the race with an endorsement of Cox, so the race for second could be close.
A Survey USA poll taken shortly after the pro-Villaraigosa ad blitz began showed him regaining some ground and moving ahead of Cox. But the buzz about his wealthy backers could present a problem; it’s hard to say, since California’s voting is increasingly tilted toward mail ballots, which are already being returned.
Tactical maneuvering abounds. Newsom ran an ad attacking Cox that was widely thought to be aimed at helping him among Republicans by stressing his solidarity with Trump and the NRA. This accords with the private views of some progressives who want to sideline Villaraigosa’s wealthy backers so that they can devote their own resources to Kevin de Leon’s challenge to Senator Dianne Feinstein. But some Democrats who will ultimately back Newsom could vote for Villaraigosa in order to keep the general election an all-Democratic affair. That was one problem faced in the 2016 U.S. Senate race by Democrat Loretta Sanchez, who finished a solid second in the primary but did poorly in the general election against Kamala Harris. Like Newsom, Harris was a progressive from the Bay Area; like Villaraigosa, Sanchez was a Latino candidates from L.A. Villaraigosa is also being hammered by a third Democratic candidate, State Treasurer John Chiang, who is showing some upward movement in the polls.
It will all play out in just a short week-and-a-half. But if Antonio Villaraigosa does make the “top two,” one of the big questions will be exactly how far some of the deepest pockets in the country are willing to dig to take their battle all the way to November — and whether their candidate pays a political price for their support.