For the candidates running to unseat California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta, the fight for political survival is now.
California’s primary election rules send only the top two vote-getting candidates, regardless of political affiliation, to the general election. As the incumbent and only Democrat on the ballot, Bonta is expected to cruise out of the June 7 primary and on to November with little fanfare. Bonta, who Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed to the job last year, was endorsed by the California Democratic Party and has raised more than $5 million for his campaign.
But for the two Republicans and one unaffiliated independent who want to oust the incumbent, the real fight is against each other.
“Rob Bonta as the incumbent is going to get the vast majority of Democratic votes. He’s going to be number one,” said Christy Wilson, a Republican campaign manager.
Bonta’s top contenders include the California Republican Party-endorsed candidate Nathan Hochman, a former assistant U.S. attorney general, and Eric Early, a Los Angeles lawyer who is running a more politically far-right campaign. Sacramento Dist. Atty. Anne Marie Schubert is seeking the office as an unaffiliated independent after she dropped her GOP registration in 2018.
The political odds for each of them are complicated.
The ranks of Democratic voters are double that of Californians registered either as Republicans or voters with “no party preference.” As Democrats have risen to a supermajority in both houses of the Legislature, Republicans have withered to near political irrelevance in Sacramento. And although California voters were told in 2010 that the creation of the “top two” primary system would boost the political fortunes of moderates, no independent candidate has since won statewide office.
Schubert, 58, is undeterred. Known for her work on the arrest and conviction of the serial murderer and rapist known as the Golden State Killer, she has promised to crack down on criminal activity as attorney general and focus on solutions to a growing homelessness and drug addiction crisis.
Dozens of law enforcement and corrections organizations are backing her, along with the majority of California’s 58 district attorneys. Bail bonds companies and groups representing bail bonds agents have shown particular interest in Schubert’s campaign, probably due to her strong opposition to a law Bonta co-authored in 2018 to eliminate cash bail in California.
Schubert has raised $2 million, with an average contribution of $1,400, according to state campaign finance records. She has received support from companies and employees in the agribusiness, real estate and construction industries, and is backed by several Native American tribes that operate large casinos.
Some of the groups have never contributed to a California political campaign before, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis. While most of her financial support is from donors in Sacramento, she’s culled donations from throughout the state.
Schubert’s independence leaves her without either a pre-existing voter base or a party endorsement to promote on the campaign trail. But she’s seeking to use those loose affiliations to her advantage, proclaiming herself as the candidate for Californians who are “sick of politics.” Her prosecutorial record and tough-on-crime proposals are likely to attract Republicans and Democrats, said Rob Stutzman, her campaign strategist. Schubert supports more socially liberal issues such as abortion rights and marriage equality, which could also draw in moderate Democrats.
“The registration disparity, I don’t see a Republican being able to do it. That’s where Schubert is a unique opportunity,” Stutzman said.
Hochman, in contrast, sees the numbers stacking up in his favor.
Unaffiliated voters don’t reliably vote for “no party preference” candidates, said Matt Rexroad, Hochman’s campaign strategist, while Republicans and Democrats usually support their party’s candidate. The two Republicans — Hochman and Early — could split their party’s vote and create a narrow window for Schubert to advance out of the primary. But Rexroad said she would need more GOP candidates on the ballot, creating a wider spread of the votes, for that strategy to work.
“Anne Marie Schubert could very well get fourth [in the primary],” Rexroad said.
Hochman, 58, is running as an establishment Republican with a resume that spans from Washington to Los Angeles. He has touted his experience as both a prosecutor and defense attorney, as well as his tenure as an assistant U.S. attorney, as evidence of his qualifications for attorney general. Hochman said he would seek to rebalance politics in Sacramento through an approach that lands somewhere between the tough-on-crime policies of decades past and more recent criminal justice reform laws.
Hochman has raised nearly $2.2 million, mostly through large individual donations in the Los Angeles area. The average donation is close to $2,100 and his candidacy is also supported by an independent committee that has raised a total of more than $440,000 from 10 contributions. Contributors to the independent effort include Hochman’s mother as well as real estate investment and financial services companies, along with individuals associated with those businesses. The California Republican Party endorsed Hochman but has not yet contributed or spent money in support of his campaign, campaign finance records show.
“The voters aren’t necessarily going to look at which party we’re registered to,” Hochman said. “They’re going to look to the person who they think can basically bring back safety and security and run the attorney general’s office in the most effective way. I believe voters have concluded that is myself.”
Early, 63, has embraced a sharply ultra-conservative platform. He has promised to do everything he can as attorney general to “outlaw” critical race theory in California classrooms and said he would investigate school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite California’s mostly Democratic electorate, Early unapologetically supports former President Trump, broad gun ownership rights under the 2nd Amendment and new restrictions on abortion.
He called Hochman and Schubert “resume” lawyers and “interchangeable widgets.”
“The people of California across the board, except for the far-left, are prepared and actually want a tough, strong conservative voice that they know and will trust will protect them,” he said.
Early has raised the least amount of money of the three contenders with almost $600,000, including his own personal funds. But he said he believes a network of grass-roots volunteers and donors will help propel him to victory. The vast majority of his fundraising is from small individual donations spread throughout the state.
Early said he’d welcome Trump’s endorsement but isn’t actively seeking it. He’s instead leaning on other allies, including Larry Elder, the conservative talk show radio host who ran unsuccessfully to replace Newsom in last year’s recall. It’s a strategy that could help Early with Republican voters in the primary, but one that might backfire in the general election. Newsom painted Elder as a Trump-like candidate on the way to overwhelmingly defeating the recall with nearly 62% of the vote.
“Eric Early is a big 2nd Amendment defender, and he’s very pro-life,” says the ad’s narrator.
The ad serves as a lesson in how campaigns use California’s top-two primary system to their advantage, often by elevating a candidate that’s easier to beat, said Paul Mitchell, a political data specialist.
“If you want to be able to float to a November victory, why not have a Republican against you in California?” Mitchell said.
But Bonta may have his own political vulnerabilities. He spent eight years in the state Assembly supporting progressive laws championed by criminal justice reform advocates, which his critics have used to blast him as proof that he’s unwilling to handle certain highly publicized crimes, such as “smash and grab” retail theft. Crime is a top issue for voters in this year’s election, according to a UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies survey from April, co-sponsored by The Times.
Most political watchers still expect Bonta to win a second term as California attorney general, regardless of his competition. Every attorney general since 1999 has been a Democrat, and Bonta’s endorsements include California’s executive leaders.
“I think Bonta is really strong in the statewide campaign,” Mitchell said. “Just the ballot designation, being attorney general, the polling that I’ve seen, Bonta is really strong.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.