Gov. Gavin Newsom will face little-known challengers for a second term

 Governor Gavin Newsom speaks ahead of Vice President Kamala Harris at a rally.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Newsom is seemingly on a clear path to reelection this November, four years after he was elected by the largest margin of any California governor over the past half-century.

None of the top Republicans who ran to replace Gov. Gavin Newsom in the failed September recall election will challenge his bid for a second term this year, leaving the task for now to little-known challengers who will face the buzzsaw of the governor’s multimillion-dollar reelection campaign.

That puts Newsom on a seemingly clear path to reelection this November, four years after he was elected by the largest margin of any California governor over the past half-century. But rising voter concerns about crime and homelessness in California along with Newsom’s tepid job approval rating could still hurt him politically if a surprise big-name challenger jumps in at the last minute, though that is not expected.

Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, once considered the Republican Party’s best hope to defeat Newsom, announced Thursday night that he would forgo entry into California’s 2022 gubernatorial race, blaming the spectacle of last year’s Republican-led recall campaign. Newsom beat back the recall effort in part by accusing his GOP challengers of being loyalists of former President Trump backed by far-right and anti-vaccine extremists.

“It’s harder than ever before to get ahead in California. We all know it, which is why a majority of Californians believe our state is on the wrong track,” Faulconer said in a statement released Thursday night. “I want to run for governor to change this, but the lingering effects of the circus that unfolded toward the end of last year’s recall make it extremely difficult to relaunch the type of campaign I would want to run.”

The field of candidates currently challenging Newsom includes Republican state Sen. Brian Dahle, a conservative, seasoned politician from Northern California, and independent candidate Michael Shellenberger, a longtime activist on energy and homelessness issues. Dahle has never run for statewide office and Shellenberger, who supported Newsom’s recall, ran for governor in 2018 as a Democrat and was backed by less than 1% of California voters.

Friday is the deadline to file to run for governor and other political offices in California, so there’s always a chance of a late entry.

Dan Newman, a political consultant for the governor, said Newsom is in a strong position politically because California voters have overwhelmingly supported him.

“Californians have been clear and consistent — repeatedly and overwhelmingly supporting the governor’s leadership during an unprecedented series of crises,” Newman said. “So he’ll stay focused — and take nothing for granted, regardless of how many Trump sycophants run against him.”

Republican political consultant Tim Rosales said the reluctance to challenge Newsom was not surprising. Not only does Newsom have nearly $25 million stashed away in his reelection campaign account, he handily defeated the recall attempt less than six months ago. Among the more than 8.4 million Californians who voted in the recall, 61.9% favored keeping Newsom in office, and 38.1% supported ousting him.

“Democrats have the advantage and not only at the ballot box, but also among the donor community,” Rosales said. “The interest among Republicans is on the congressional races, not only in California but nationally. That’s occupying most of the energy on the Republican side.”

Rosales noted that the last Republican to mount a formidable campaign for California governor was Meg Whitman, a former eBay chief executive. She spent a record $177 million on her campaign, only to lose to Democrat Jerry Brown in 2010.

After the recall went down to defeat in September, four of the top Republicans hoping to replace Newsom all said they would consider challenging him again in the 2022 race and, eventually, all decided not to.

Along with Faulconer, conservative talk show host Larry Elder, who topped the field of recall replacement candidates, said in January that he would not run.

Among the other Republicans, Rancho Santa Fe businessman John Cox and Assemblymember Kevin Kiley of Rocklin also said they would not challenge Newsom. Cox also lost to Newsom in the 2018 gubernatorial race, and Kiley has opted to run for Congress.

Matt Lesenyie, a political scientist at Cal State Long Beach, said it’s telling that Faulconer, a well-qualified moderate Republican who led one of California’s largest cities and could have widespread appeal in the state, doesn’t think he has a shot.

“He looks at the field, he’s got good advice, good advisors, but he looks at it and says, ‘Nah. Why bother?’” Lesenyie said. “He’s a guy who could speak to California; that is to say, he could put a winning face on the Republican Party to show a way to win here.”

But Lenenyie said the California GOP has been distilled down to a dense conservative core, moving it further from moderate voters and the state’s left-leaning majority.

“What’s gonna win here somebody who’s OK with the environment and isn’t waging a culture war in a state that’s really progressive,” he said.

The absence of a big-name Republican challenger in the race to lead California, where the conservative icon and future president Ronald Reagan served two terms as governor, reveals just how far the GOP’s prospects have fallen in the state’s preeminent political races.

Democratic registered voters in California also outnumber Republicans by a nearly 2-1 margin, helping explain why no Republican has won a statewide political campaign since 2006. In California’s races for U.S. Senate in 2016 and 2018, no Republican won enough votes in the June top-two primaries to advance to the general election.

Democratic Sen. Alex Padilla also lacks a major challenger thus far, despite this being his first Senate campaign after he was appointed to the seat by Newsom in late 2020 to fill a vacancy left when Kamala Harris was elected vice president.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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