Capitol Alert

In California governor’s race, Gavin Newsom doing his best to pretend he has no opponent

A few days after his Republican opponent launched a pair of websites attacking him as a privileged, San Francisco elitist, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom boarded a campaign bus with something else in mind: Shifting the balance of power in Washington, and returning the Democratic supermajority to both houses of the state Legislature.

Newsom on Wednesday wasn’t focused on his Republican rival in the governor’s race, businessman John Cox. He was rallying support for Democrats Josh Harder, challenging Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, and TJ Cox, challenging Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford.

“I’m running for governor and we’re doing everything we can to win...but it won’t mean as much if that evening, Democrats don’t take back the House and we don’t restore some sanity,” Newsom said on his campaign bus outside Fresno. “I have tremendous anxiety of another two years of the status quo.”

By the end of this week, he will have campaigned for six Democratic House candidates and 15 state legislative candidates. His campaign has also spent $1 million on “get-out-the-vote” efforts and direct campaign contributions to the candidates.

Newsom’s strategy is to motivate Democrats to vote in the November general election and help national efforts to return the party to power in the House. Democratic activists are targeting 10 California congressional seats currently held by Republicans, including seven in districts that went for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016.

“Having Gavin Newsom, as the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, going into these districts that we need to win to take back the House is important because it will help with Democratic enthusiasm and Democratic turnout,” said Katie Merrill, a Democratic political consultant and chief strategist for the “Fight Back California” political action committee, working to put Democrats in control of Congress.

“The only way we win these districts is if we get presidential-level Democratic turnout, which we don’t normally see in midterm elections,” Merrill said.

Strategists said Newsom risks little, given his lead over Cox.

“If you are a frontrunner, especially with a comfortable lead, you can afford to do this. It’s all upside for him,” said Darry Sragow, publisher of the nonpartisan California Target Book. “The caveat is you can’t look like you’re hiding or not taking the campaign seriously, so it’s the perfect thing for him to be getting out there being busy and active and engaged with voters.”

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A strong Democratic turnout could also help Newsom advance his policy agenda, if elected governor.

“He’s collecting chips for the future,” said Dan Schnur, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Center on Communication, Leadership & Policy. “Governors can’t make things happen unilaterally. He needs allies in the Legislature and Congress.”

“There are some who would say he’s simply collecting endorsements for a presidential campaign, but these are allies and supporters who could be of great help to him if he’s elected governor,” Schnur said.

Newsom has said repeatedly during the campaign that he has no plans to run for president — a point he repeated Wednesday.

“I...have no interest in anything to do with any of that.”

He added: “No one believes it, my friends don’t either...”

Newsom acknowledged that helping Democrats win seats in the Legislature and Congress could benefit him in advancing his policy goals, such as establishing a universal health care system that covers everyone, including undocumented immigrants.

The “success” of California Democrats, Newsom said, “over the last few years can be primarily attached to these supermajorities in the Legislature, and the ease to which Gov. Brown was was able to advance his agenda.”

Cox, meanwhile, is attempting to gain traction in the race by attacking Newsom for his business ties to wealthy San Francisco families, on his policy positions and for declining to participate in multiple debates.

On a website unveiled last week, Cox called Newsom a “fortunate son.” He challenged him to a pull up contest on Twitter last month, and later said “Gavin Newsom NOT for governor,” linking to a news article about Newsom’s support for expanding health coverage to undocumented immigrants. Cox continued his social media criticism, this week denouncing Newsom for declining to participate in a series of gubernatorial debates, including on on Fox News.

As for Newsom’s focus on Congressional races, Cox spokesman Matt Shupe said: “Why should Californians expect anything different from the guy who barely shows up for his job as Lieutenant Governor?”

Newsom said he’s not paying attention to Cox’s political attacks.

“We’re out here attacking the problems of this state,” Newsom said. “We’re in the Central Valley trying to attack poverty, trying to deal with the health care crisis that (Cox’s) party helped create. We’re going to be attacking climate issues...which he denies. That’s where I’m focusing my attacks.”

Newsom won’t be ignoring Cox for the entire campaign. On Tuesday, campaign officials for both Newsom and Cox confirmed the two would participate in a debate moderated by KQED, the San Francisco-based NPR affiliate. Tentatively scheduled for the morning of Oct. 8, it appears to be the only planned debate before Election Day.

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