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Can anything stop Gavin Newsom from becoming California's next governor?

In primary victory speech, Newsom frames the California governor race as a fight with Trump

Gavin Newsom, after winning the primary for California governor, hit on major platform issues. He calls out Attorney General Jeff Sessions and declares California is "a state where we don't criminalize diversity, we celebrate diversity."
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Gavin Newsom, after winning the primary for California governor, hit on major platform issues. He calls out Attorney General Jeff Sessions and declares California is "a state where we don't criminalize diversity, we celebrate diversity."

In deeply Democratic California, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom appears unstoppable in his long-running bid to succeed Gov. Jerry Brown.

He faces a Republican in a state where Democrats comprise nearly half of the electorate, the Republican Party is losing voters and President Donald Trump's approval rating in California is lower than most other parts of the country.

"If you have an 'R' after your name and you're running statewide in California, it's a scarlet letter," said Garry South, a Southern California-based Democratic consultant.

Taking on rival John Cox, a Republican businessman from San Diego, in a general election campaign allows Newsom to discuss the deep ideological differences between himself and a Republican who won the president's endorsement.

"Please come campaign for him as much as possible," Newsom wrote in a Twitter response to Trump after the president tweeted a message congratulating Cox for earning enough votes to make the general election race.

Cox has a game plan: He is seeking to tie Newsom — a former two-term mayor of San Francisco — to California's soaring cost of living, saying he and Democratic policies are to blame for rising homelessness, high taxes and housing costs.

He'd rather voters don't concentrate on who belongs to which political party. He wrote on Twitter that "business people have been elected to clean up the politicians' messes in state after state, and in most cases party labels had little to do with who was elected."

Cox campaign manager Tim Rosales said the overarching campaign message is focused on reducing government regulations and lowering taxes.

"Issues like the special-interest control and the gas tax are the things John Cox sees as barriers to affordability. Those are the issues we'll be talking about ... making California affordable again," Rosales said. "Key to this are votes outside of that upper-tier echelon of Chardonnay-sipping San Franciscans, who have a very good quality of life right now."

Newsom strongly supports the gas tax increase approved last year by the Legislature and signed by Brown. He already is campaigning against its proposed repeal in November, arguing that California needs to keep spending on roads and bridges.

More than half of voters are in favor of it, according to an April poll by UC Berkeley's Institute of Governmental Studies, but the issue is highly divisive and helped Republicans recall state Sen. Josh Newman, D-Fullerton, for his vote in favor of the tax.

Jennifer Jacobs, a Southern California-based Republican political consultant, argued the gas tax repeal is an issue voters care deeply about, one Republican candidates can particularly use to their advantage in conservative-leaning parts of the state like the Central Valley and Orange County.

"Take that single mom who has to get to work every day and she's living paycheck to paycheck … that 12 cents a gallon makes a difference," Jacobs said. "That's who John Cox should be campaigning to."

Newsom's shifting messaging on single-payer health care could also be a political vulnerability.

On the concept of single-payer health care, Newsom has said repeatedly throughout his campaign that he supports the idea but has not firmly backed a proposal held up in the Legislature to create such a system.

In his victory speech on election night, Newsom called for "guaranteed health care for all." He said recently that achieving single-payer would take time, requiring negotiations around how to pay for it and how to overcome legal and constitutional challenges that would come with creating such a system.

But there is room for Cox to argue that a single-payer system would require significant tax increases, which would be necessary to replace current spending by consumers on insurance premiums and other health care expenses.

"There's exorbitant costs to that," said Rosales, the Cox campaign manager, adding that single-payer "would consolidate everything under the government."

Bill Whalen, a Hoover Institution research fellow, said Newsom's strong support for liberal policies like gay marriage and legal weed could harm Newsom's popularity, particularly in inland and suburban parts of the state.

"There is a vulnerability to exploit, and that is that he's the number one most progressive candidate California has ever had," Whalen said. "And he's just the opposite of Jerry Brown in style. There's this perceived arrogance there."

Yet there is the reality that Democrats and independent voters, who lean to the left in California, will be hard-pressed to vote for a Republican.

"Given the dynamics of statewide races in California, it's almost certain that Gavin Newsom will be our next governor," said Rose Kapolczynski, a Democratic consultant who worked on the gubernatorial campaign of former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and previously served as chief adviser to former U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer.

She said on issues such as abortion and immigration, in particular, the choice will be clear.

Newsom is pro-choice and believes a woman should have the right to make her own health care decisions. Cox opposes abortion and has the endorsement of the anti-abortion group California Pro-Life Council.

"Once voters hear that John Cox thinks abortion should be criminalized and there should be no exceptions even to save the life of the mother, they'll understand that he is too extreme for California," Kapolczynski said.

Cox said, when he ran unsuccessfully for president in 2008 and earlier, that he opposes abortion in all circumstances and there should be no exceptions. "I think that anybody who has a rape and incest exception to abortion hasn't thought it through. Killing the baby is not going to absolve the crime of rape," he said in 2006.

Rosales declined to answer whether Cox still holds that position.

"We're not going to comment on that. It's not an issue we're going to discuss," Rosales said.

California Democratic Party officials, including its chairman Eric Bauman, said Newsom is positioned to help other Democratic candidates in California, running for congressional and legislative seats, and he won't have to fiercely defend his past record or his current positions.

"What are people going to do? Bring up the same old stories about mistakes he made in the past?" Bauman asked, referring to Newsom's 2005 alcohol-fueled affair with the wife of his campaign manager and friend. "He's apologized for those repeatedly and frankly, it's old news."

Sandra Lowe, senior strategist for the party, said the primary results – Newsom is holding with more than 33 percent of the vote – is a clear indication of his wide margin of support, despite an expensive and contentious intra-party fight.

"It was a brutal primary. I don't think there's anything left to find," Lowe said. "Everything has been aired in some of the most graphic and gruesome ways possible, and he came through like roses."

Jacobs, the Republican consultant, said Cox pressing Newsom on the gas tax could "tighten up the race," but it still isn't likely to make Cox competitive with Newsom.

"The numbers are unlikely, just based on pure demographics, but that's not to say that anything's not possible," she said.

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