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Calif. gov candidates battle for second place

Calif. gov candidates battle for second place
© Getty Images/Hill photo illustration

Three weeks before voters winnow the race to replace outgoing California Gov. Jerry Brown (D), the leading contenders are engaged in a complex war for the second spot in November’s general election.

The leading Republican, businessman John Cox, is attacking the front-running Democrat, Gavin Newsom. Newsom in turn is blasting Cox. An independent group backing former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (D) is doing the same. And another well-funded Democrat, state Treasurer John Chiang, is attacking Villaraigosa.

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Observers say the myriad attacks represent the strategic goals of each candidate, all of whom are trying to pick their own opponents in November.

Because election rules in this liberal bastion mean the top two vote-earners advance regardless of party affiliation, Newsom would rather face a Republican than a fellow Democrat in November. For his part, Villaraigosa needs to undermine Cox’s support to make it to November. And Chiang needs to leapfrog Villaraigosa to become the choice for Democrats who can’t stomach Newsom.

Public polls show Newsom solidly in the lead, given his strong base in the liberal San Francisco area, where voters turn out at disproportionately higher rates than in other parts of the state. But television viewers might not get that impression based on Newsom’s focus on Cox.

“John Cox stands with Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke's debate showdown Arpaio files libel suit against New York Times IMF's Christine Lagarde delays trip to Middle East MORE and the NRA. Cox called gun laws a waste of time,” Newsom’s latest ad says. “Gavin Newsom took on the gun lobby and won.”

Cox seems to relish the opportunity to engage one-on-one with the Democrat.

“For Republicans, the race for governor is crystal clear. There’s conservative businessman John Cox, leading the opposition to Jerry Brown’s sanctuary state,” Cox’s latest advertisement says. “Then there’s career politician Gavin Newsom, who never met a tax he didn’t love.”

The back-and-forth between Newsom and Cox serves both candidates’ ends. Newsom’s path to the governor’s mansion will be easier if he faces a Republican in the general election — the GOP has been shut out of statewide office in recent years. At the same time, Cox benefits from a feud with Newsom, a candidate Republicans have long painted as a liberal boogeyman.

Newsom’s tactics recall those of Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillElection Countdown: Dems outraise GOP in final stretch | 2018 midterms already most expensive in history | What to watch in second Cruz-O'Rourke debate | Trump raises 0M for reelection | Why Dems fear Avenatti's approach Dems outraising Republicans in final stretch of midterms Election Countdown: Cruz, O'Rourke fight at pivotal point | Ryan hitting the trail for vulnerable Republicans | Poll shows Biden leading Dem 2020 field | Arizona Senate debate tonight MORE (D-Mo.), who used a barrage of advertising just before the 2012 Republican primary to attack one of her potential rivals, then-Rep. Todd Akin (R), as being “too conservative” — an attack that had the side effect of boosting Akin with conservative Republican primary voters. Akin went on to make his notorious remarks about “legitimate rape,” blowing the GOP’s chances against McCaskill.

“Newsom is way ahead. He’d rather run against a Republican whom he can easily crush than a Democrat who might give him a fight,” said John Pitney, a former Republican National Committee spokesman and political scientist at Claremont McKenna College.

The other two candidates are fighting to make their voices heard in the crowded landscape.

Villaraigosa, a liberal Democrat who chaired the party’s 2012 national convention and addressed delegates in 2016, is trying to win over Republican voters. His campaign has mailed fliers to GOP households, and an independent group of charter school advocates has spent millions bolstering a fifth candidate — conservative state Assemblyman Travis Allen — in hopes of bringing Cox’s numbers down.

“OK, who can beat the San Francisco guy for governor? Not the conservative guy, Travis Allen. What about this John Cox? Talks a big game, but what’s he done?” a narrator says in the independent group’s latest advertisement. “Thirteen losing campaigns? Seven in Illinois? Cox lost campaigns as a Republican and as a Democrat, gave money to liberals, supported big tax increases. No wonder Republicans say Cox is unelectable in November.”

Chiang’s attacks may be the most straightforward. His advertising campaign has targeted Villaraigosa’s tenure as mayor, when Los Angeles faced a fiscal crisis during the recession, and contrasted it with Chiang’s tenure as the state’s chief financial officer.

“He was called a failure, an embarrassment. As mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa drove L.A. to the brink of bankruptcy,” Chiang’s narrator says. “But John Chiang was praised for his leadership. John helped save California from financial disaster, and refused to pay legislators when they didn’t balance the budget.”

The campaigns have now turned their fire on each other’s advertising strategy. In an email, Villaraigosa spokesman Luis Vizcaino accused Newsom’s campaign of aiding a Republican, Cox.

“While Gavin Newsom is trying to lift up Republican John Cox, Antonio Villaraigosa is organizing a campaign to lift more families into the middle class,” Vizcaino said. “The difference couldn’t be clearer.”

Newsom’s spokesman, Nathan Click, said the advertisement “lays out the fundamental difference between the top two polling candidates on gun safety.”

“Gavin Newsom has a demonstrated record of passing commonsense gun safety and John Cox stands with Donald Trump and the NRA,” Click said. He pointed to Villaraigosa’s own advertising also targeting Cox.

For all the candidates, getting a message out to voters has become a struggle to cut through an increasingly cluttered media landscape. Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinThe Hill's Morning Report — Presented by the Coalition for Affordable Prescription Drugs — Pollsters: White college-educated women to decide if Dems capture House Trump, Feinstein feud intensifies over appeals court nominees American Bar Association dropping Kavanaugh review MORE (D), who faces a challenge from former state Senate President Kevin de León (D), is airing ads. So are Attorney General Xavier BecerraXavier BecerraPublic charge rule is a cruel attack on children Federal judge rules against Sessions's effort to hit sanctuary cities Internet providers sue California over net neutrality law MORE (D) and his rival, state Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones (D).

“With millions of dollars raining down on the Los Angeles media market airwaves, it’s now more important than ever for candidates to have compelling, attention-grabbing and visually stimulating ads that can help break through the clutter in order to cement a message with the electorate and have it make a lasting impact,” said Dave Jacobson, a Democratic strategist in Los Angeles who counts several congressional candidates as clients.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has dropped more than $1.4 million on television ads in the Los Angeles and San Diego markets to undercut Republicans in congressional districts critical to their hopes of taking back the House. The House Majority PAC and Priorities USA Action, two Democratic groups, are spending $270,000 on digital ads hammering Republicans in those districts, too.

Democrats and Republicans running for Congress in at least six congressional districts in the Los Angeles and San Diego areas are also on the air.