Democrats vie for chance to take on Trump as California governor

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — For a generation of ambitious Democrats, it’s an almost intoxicating prize: the opportunity to serve as governor of the largest state in the nation — and, along with it, become President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump pens op-ed on kindergartners learning tech Bharara, Yates tamp down expectations Mueller will bring criminal charges Overnight Cybersecurity: Equifax security employee left after breach | Lawmakers float bill to reform warrantless surveillance | Intel leaders keeping collusion probe open MORE’s No. 1 foil.

But even as some of the state’s best-known politicians begin campaigning for the right to replace term-limited Gov. Jerry Brown (D), they are coming to grips with a new California primary system where the top two vote getters will advance to the general election, regardless of party.

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In a state where the moribund Republican Party failed to advance a candidate in last year’s contest for an open U.S. Senate seat, that has Democratic candidates rethinking their initial appeals to voters — and wondering just how many votes they’ll need to make it to a runoff.

“This is uncharted territory in the governor’s race,” said Garry South, a longtime Los Angeles-based Democratic strategist. “With the top two, you don’t have to finish first. You can finish second, and you’re still off to the races.”

Already, three prominent Democrats — Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, state Treasurer John Chiang and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — are vying for those top two slots. The field is likely to grow: Billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer and state Senate President Kevin de León are considering bids, and current Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who is running for reelection in March, has not ruled out a run.

The few public polls that have been conducted show Newsom in the driver’s seat. A Field Poll conducted in November showed Newsom taking 23 percent; no other Democrat topped double figures. Two Republicans who have not entered the race, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and former Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, came in with 16 percent and 11 percent, respectively.

“Not always a good place to start,” Newsom said of being the front-runner. “That’s nice, but not something to hang your hat on.”

Conventional, if counterintuitive, wisdom in California holds that a Democrat with a political base in the San Francisco Bay Area holds an edge over a Democrat from the more populous Los Angeles area. Bay Area voters turn out at higher percentages and vote more reliably Democratic than Angeleno voters.

But in an unconventional race, the leading contenders are spending their early days wooing voters outside their natural constituencies. Newsom took 84 trips to Southern California in 2016, while Villaraigosa has already spent more than a month campaigning in the Central Valley and the Inland Empire, some of the last Republican bastions in the state.

“Historically, neither Democrats or Republicans spend a whole lot of time in the Central Valley or the Inland Empire,” Villaraigosa said in an interview. “Long before the November election, in the parts of the state where I had an opportunity to visit, it was clear that people are struggling and looking for jobs, concerned about the future. They feel like the economy isn’t working for them.”

Newsom, too, said it was incumbent on him to reach beyond his existing base: “The race will be won or lost on my ability — our ability — to successfully broaden our appeal in the southern part of the state.”

The leading candidates are carving out early niches for themselves. 

Newsom, who backed same-sex marriage long before it was popular even among Democrats, and who supported a ballot measure to legalize marijuana for recreational uses, is positioning himself as the liberal favorite. The California Nurses Association, which backed Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersChris Murphy’s profile rises with gun tragedies Clip shows Larry David and Bernie Sanders reacting after discovering they're related For now, Trump dossier creates more questions than answers MORE (I-Vt.) in the Democratic presidential primary, is behind him.

“I do think that the Bernie base will go with Gavin,” said RoseAnn DeMoro, head of the Nurses Association.

Villaraigosa, a former union organizer himself, is casting himself as the experienced government executive who gets things done for blue-collar constituents. He is also the only Hispanic candidate in the race so far, a key factor in a state where minorities make up a majority of registered voters.

“That community is growing, and growing quickly,” said Eric Jaye, Villaraigosa’s chief strategist.

Chiang has less of a geographic base, though as state treasurer, he has tried to appear as the progressive but fiscally prudent heir to Brown’s legacy. Chiang is being bolstered by the increasingly influential community of Asian-American politicians and donors in the state.

Almost a year and a half before the primary, plenty of wildcards remain. Garcetti has not ruled out a run; in Washington last week, the Los Angeles mayor told The Hill he is only focused on his reelection bid this March.

Steyer, who spent $87 million on behalf of Democratic candidates in 2016, has yet to make up his mind. Self-funding candidates often fare poorly in California politics — the most recent example is Meg Whitman, who lost the governorship after spending $144 million of her own money in 2010 — but Steyer has gone out of his way to introduce himself to voters, both through his environmental activism and by backing a ballot measure to raise taxes on cigarettes in 2016.

“Somebody who gets identified as being a total self-funder with very limited political experience, or none, looks opportunistic. That model has been universally a disaster,” said Bill Carrick, a Los Angeles-based Democratic strategist. “Tom has really worked very hard to make sure people understand he didn’t wake up one morning and decide to run for public office.”

But in an interview, Steyer sounded less certain of his own future than he had been before November’s elections, when Donald Trump won the White House.

“I said I’m going to wait until Nov. 8 with the full expectation that the decision [to run for governor] would be made under President-elect Clinton,” Steyer told The Hill. “The world did not play out on Nov. 8 the way I expected it to, and I want to make sure whatever I do is well considered and responds to the reality of what’s going on.”

The final wild card is the weak California Republican Party. If the party is able to line up behind one candidate, that contender has a strong chance of making the runoff. If the field is divided among several candidates, as it was during the 2016 race to replace retiring Sen. Barbara BoxerBarbara BoxerTrump riles Dems with pick for powerful EPA job Pelosi's chief of staff stepping down Time is now to address infrastructure needs MORE (D), an all-Democratic runoff becomes more plausible.

Faulconer, the popular mayor of San Diego, is the only Republican who startles Democrats, several party strategists said. (The last Republican governor to win a regularly scheduled election, Pete Wilson, was also the mayor of San Diego.) Billionaire tech investor Peter Thiel, a prominent Trump backer, is also said to be considering a bid, though few in California believe he will run.

Though California’s next governor will take office in 2019, he or she is almost certain to become an immediate force on the national landscape. Brown and California Democratic leaders have already set themselves up as bulwarks against Trump’s administration, and the next governor is likely to be seen as a potential presidential candidate.

“This will be the most followed race in 2018, particularly with the election of Donald Trump,” Villaraigosa predicted. “People are going to be a lot more interested in the governor’s race in California, in no small part because California has charted a dramatically different path. Much of what President Obama tried to do and wanted to do, we’ve been doing.”

“The California governor will always play an outsized role,” Newsom said. “That’s our history. And it’s not just in our rearview mirror. I think it’s in our windshield.”

Despite that outsized role, the next governor faces historical headwinds if he or she opts for a national run: The Democratic Party has never nominated a candidate from a state farther west than Texas. Even Brown, the seemingly undisputed king of California politics, failed to win his party’s nomination on three separate occasions.