DONNELLY: California Democrats’ ‘Civil War’ Could Open Door to Republican Governor

California Governor's Mansion (David Sawyer / Flickr / CC)
David Sawyer / Flickr / CC

If California Democrats aren’t careful — and don’t quell the growing civil war within their ranks — they risk paving a pathway for a Republican or Independent to become California’s next governor.

With five major Democrats in the race, or considering a run, the ruling party in California aired its dirty laundry for all Californians to see this past weekend at its annual convention in Sacramento, possibly creating an opening for the moribund California GOP to advance.

The list of major Democrats running includes Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom, State Treasurer John Chiang, and former Los Angeles Mayor Tony Villaraigosa. Other potential Democratic candidates include hedge fund billionaire and environmentalist Tom Steyer, and State Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De León.

In the end, the “let’s-make-a-deal” wing of the party, otherwise known as the “establishment elite” or the “corporate wing,” won the day at the convention, putting one of their own, Eric Bauman, into power as party leader.

The irony is that the battle lines within the California Democratic Party are similar to those that sidelined the GOP in California for decades.  The Washington Post boiled it down this way: “They still managed to leave the city in a brawl over the chairmanship and the national party’s refusal to run on single-payer health care.”

Even though the chairmanship was decided, the margin was so close that the “Bernie-crats” demanded a recount —which is not allowed under party rules. (The party that eschews voter ID laws demands a signature on each of its internal ballots, rather than simply allowing secret ballots.)

A San Francisco Chronicle story captured the spirit of the divide in an interview with Tania Singh, who, along with other young activists, “feverishly wrote [out] signs that said, ‘Strike 3: Hillary. Perez. Bauman.’”

“A lot of older folks talk about how proud they are to be Democrats. Millennials don’t feel that way,” Singh told the Chronicle. “I almost wish that (Clinton) had lost the popular vote so the party could understand what people want. But since they didn’t, they can continue to remain arrogant.”

All this chaos and self-destruction is not likely to go unnoticed by gubernatorial hopefuls in the California Republican Party — or even by the Independents considering a bid.

Political neophyte John Cox is the only Republican formally declared thus far with anything resembling a campaign. But tech billionaire Sam Altman could mount a serious challenge as an Independent or a Republican.

Cox has a serious problem. No one knows who he is, and he has declined to say whether he voted for Trump in the 2016 election. That will provoke doubts among the most vocal and active of the Republican faithful.  Cox is hoping to straddle the middle, and while that might sound like a workable strategy, it is much easier said than done.

Being for or against Trump has become a litmus test of sorts in the Republican Party — and in California, political consultants “misunderestimate” the effect of being on the wrong side of that question in a post-Trump era primary.

Primaries are about “bold colors” and extremes. Most candidates win by staking out territory where others fear to tread. Trump won the 2016 Republican presidential primary by promising to “build a wall”  and “make Mexico pay for it.”  He won the general election by not abandoning his base of supporters, and managed to build on his support in the general election by owning the “anti-establishment” mantle that he earned in the primary, which led to Hillary’s demise.

California’s “top two,” “jungle” primary was sold as a way to end gridlock by forcing candidates to the center. But with Villaraigosa attacking Newsom from the left, as well as a major threat looming from the far-left in Steyer, Newsom is in danger of losing the progressive “Bernie-crats,” who currently make up about half the activist base of the party.

With a number of well-funded moderates in Cox, Altman and Chiang, the competition for votes is likely to be ugly, which could create an opportunity for one candidate to sneak under the radar into the top two.

That would, in turn, make it possible for a Republican or even an Independent to become California’s next governor.

Tim Donnelly is a former California State Assemblyman and author who is doing a book tour for his new book: Patriot Not Politician: Win or Go Homeless. He ran for governor in 2014.


Twitter:  @PatriotNotPol


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