Capitol Alert

Rent control, data privacy and gas taxes for roads: Get ready for the next election

See how much California’s gas tax will rise through 2020

Increases to California's gas tax were approved in 2017 and will continue for years.
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Increases to California's gas tax were approved in 2017 and will continue for years.

Election officials haven't even finished counting the votes from Tuesday's primary, but the campaign has already begun for the November general election. Here are some key races to keep an eye on over the next five months, and why they could have a huge impact on California politics.

Gas tax repeal

You will probably have an opportunity this November to vote on proposals to make it harder to raise local taxes and even split California into three separate states. But no issue is likely to generate more attention than an initiative to repeal a recent increase of transportation fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees lawmakers approved to fix California’s crumbling roads.

Public polls consistently indicate that the fees, passed by Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative Democrats last year, are deeply unpopular with Californians — and Republicans have seized on that with a vengeance. They used his support for the gas tax increase to convince voters to recall state Sen. Josh Newman on Tuesday, depriving Democrats of their Senate supermajority.

A measure to undo the taxes is currently undergoing signature verification and is expected to qualify for the November ballot. Though its passage would be a major rebuke to Brown as he finishes a historic run in the governor's office, it was sponsored by House Republicans primarily as a way to drive up GOP turnout as they face serious challenges to their re-election this year.

Now, after the successful Newman recall, its backers are imagining even greater opportunities to revive the GOP's diminished relevance in California. Carl DeMaio, chairman of the initiative campaign, threatened Wednesday on Twitter to launch recall campaigns against two more Democratic senators and use the gas tax as a political bludgeon against half a dozen Assembly Democrats.

Rent control

Everyone is looking for a solution to California's housing crisis — they just can't agree on what it is. After a bill failed in the Legislature earlier this year, proponents are headed to the November ballot with a measure that would reverse a 1995 law severely limiting the use of rent control in the state. If passed by voters, it would allows cities and counties to enact much stricter renter protections, including for some types of housing, such as single-family homes and condos, where it was previously prohibited. But apartment landlords, investors and developers argue the initiative would actually make California's affordability problems even worse by bringing new construction to a standstill. Some consultants involved with the campaign estimate that it could be an $80 million fight this fall.

Data privacy

If recent news about data breaches and Cambridge Analytica has you feeling wary of what personal information you have floating around online, then you may find some relief in a data privacy initiative expected to qualify for the November election. The measure, sponsored by a trio of Bay Area business professionals, would require big companies to disclose what information they gather, explain how they share or sell it, and give people the right to block the spread of their personal data. Business groups, particularly those representing tech companies, are lining up against the proposal, which they contend is unworkable and would cause their members to flee the state. But some major opponents, such as Facebook, have backed off amid their own data-related scandals.

U.S. Senate

For the second consecutive election, Californians will choose between two Democrats for a U.S. Senate seat. When it first happened in 2016, there wasn't much of a race that followed, and prospects aren't great that it will be any more exciting this time around. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, in her bid for a sixth term, advanced from Tuesday's primary with 44 percent of the vote, compared to 11 percent for upstart state Sen. Kevin de León, who has struggled mightily to keep up with her fundraising. But disaffected liberal voters are hoping de León can mount a real challenge from the left against Feinstein, a famously moderate Democrat who they feel has been too patient and accommodating of the Trump administration. In recent months, she has already shifted her position on several signature issues, like the death penalty.

Lieutenant governor

After giving $4 million to her own campaign (and getting another $5 million boost from her father), developer and former U.S. Ambassador Eleni Kounalakis finished first in the lieutenant governor primary — but not by much. And it looks like she will face a fellow Democrat, state Sen. Ed Hernández, in November, making for a much more competitive race to the finish. How much more is Kounalakis willing to spend to win a position that, frankly, doesn't have much in the way of official duties? And will unions, with plenty of other priorities on the ballot in November, come through in a big way for the labor-backed Hernández?

Superintendent of public instruction

Four years ago, this low-profile nonpartisan office overseeing state education policy became the most expensive and contentious race of the year in California, as wealthy advocates of overhauling the public school system nearly pushed former charter schools executive Marshall Tuck to victory over an incumbent supported by the state's powerful teachers' unions. Tuck is back, facing a new opponent allied with the teachers, Assemblyman Tony Thurmond. With Antonio Villaraigosa, their candidate of choice, now out of contention in the governor's race, will charter school proponents unleash their massive funding on Tuck's campaign, launching another proxy war over the future of California schools?

Congress

Democrats avoided a top-two crisis on Tuesday; it appears they advanced a candidate in all seven Republican-held House districts that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016 (as well as three more they are targeting just in case a blue wave helps them sweep back control of Congress in November). But their prospects of winning those seats look more challenging after a primary in which most of the incumbents won a majority of the vote.

The big question mark may be President Donald Trump, whose shaky appeal with affluent suburban Republicans brought many of those districts into play in the first place. He has since recovered his standing with California conservatives, though he remains deeply unpopular with independents and Democrats. If his approval ratings continue to rise, it could close off Democrats' biggest line of attack in November.

Trump himself is feeling confident enough that he was openly cheering on several of the targeted House members on Twitter this week, including Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of Costa Mesa, among the most vulnerable of the bunch. Might Trump even venture across the country to campaign with Republicans in California this fall? John Cox, the Trump-endorsed GOP businessman who finished in the top two of the gubernatorial primary on Tuesday, welcomed the idea: "I would be happy to have him come."

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