Gov. Newsom advances to November as California primary returns come in

California Governor Gavin Newsom holds a press conference.
Gov. Gavin Newsom was easily leading in California’s gubernatorial primary after polls closed Tuesday night.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s showing in California’s primary shows how formidable he is even after COVID-19, devastating wildfires and worsening homelessness.

Gov. Gavin Newsom took a large step toward reelection Tuesday after quickly besting a crowded field of scarcely known challengers in the primary, though the size of his first-round victory was unclear immediately following the closing of polls in California.

The Associated Press projected that the 55-year-old Democrat would easily move to the Nov. 8 election.

Newsom’s dominance comes almost nine months after he easily swatted down a Republican-led recall attempt. The one-two punch showed just how formidable he remains in California politics even after a first term in which he was tested by the tumult of the COVID-19 pandemic, six of the largest wildfires in state history and an ever-worsening homelessness crisis.

A poll released last week by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies and co-sponsored by The Times showed that Newsom’s most likely November opponent is state Sen. Brian Dahle, a Northern California Republican who has never run for statewide office. The poll showed that half of likely voters backed Newsom’s bid for reelection, compared with 10% who supported Dahle.

Dahle, a grain farmer from the tiny Lassen County town of Bieber, knows defeating Newsom will take a herculean effort. However, he said in recent weeks that he believes Californians are yearning for political change after seeing what Newsom and decades of Democratic leadership in the state have wrought. He blamed the state’s persistent struggles with crime, homelessness and a high cost of living on policies embraced by Newsom.

Voter turnout in the primary is expected to be low across the state, most likely driven by the lack of suspense and voter interest in California’s premier statewide races for governor and U.S. Senate. Democratic Sen. Alex Padilla, who was appointed by Newsom just over two years ago, is expected to coast through the November election despite this being his first time to come before voters for the coveted post.

Newsom had little incentive to tangle with his challengers in the months leading up to the primary. Aside from political ads that criticized Dahle for opposing abortion rights and accused him of being a loyalist of former President Trump, Newsom’s campaign barely broke the surface. He also still sits atop a reelection fund of some $23 million, while his 25 challengers had a little over $1 million combined as of late last month.

Even on election day, Newsom opted to skip the campaign trail — a telling indication that he wasn’t sweating the primary. Instead, he was preparing for the Summit of the Americas, where he will greet President Biden and other world leaders in Los Angeles on Wednesday. Almost two weeks ago, the governor announced that he had contracted the coronavirus, though a spokesperson said last week that Newsom’s follow-up tests were negative.

When Newsom crushed the recall election in September, he essentially cemented his reelection, said Cal State Fullerton political scientist Sarah Hill. Republican recall supporters, and the GOP candidates hoping to replace him, attacked Newsom for his response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the homelessness crisis, rising violent crime and the astronomically high cost of housing.

But their efforts fell far short, with almost 63% of voters who cast ballots opting to keep Newsom in office.

“If he was going to go down, if he was as unpopular as some folks hoped, the recall was going to show that. But he very clearly dominated in the recall and came back strong,” Hill said. “I think it just scared off anyone who might oppose him.”

None of the top Republicans who ran to replace Newsom in the recall election challenged his bid for a second term. Among those who took a pass were conservative talk show host Larry Elder, who topped the field of recall replacement candidates, and former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, once considered the California Republican Party’s best hope to defeat Newsom.

The Democratic governor already has signaled plans to use the same political strategy that proved so effective during the recall, when he portrayed the campaign to oust him as a “life and death” battle against Trumpism and far-right activists who oppose COVID-19 vaccinations and want to rescind abortion rights.

Newsom seized on Dahle’s opposition to abortion rights in a campaign ad released just days after last month’s leak of a draft U.S. Supreme Court opinion that would overturn abortion rights protected by Roe vs. Wade. After a shooting two weeks ago at a Texas elementary school left 19 children and two adults dead, the governor also criticized Republicans for stifling gun control efforts, saying the party “won’t do a damn thing” to protect Americans from gun violence.

Dahle has said that he fully expects the Newsom campaign to paint him as some far-right “crazy guy,” and that one of his biggest challenges will be raising enough money to douse any sparks generated by a political smear campaign while letting voters know what he really stands for.

Upstart independent candidate Michael Shellenberger amplified the same criticisms of the governor, saying Newsom was more interested in running for president one day than curing the many ills that Shellenberger says are destroying Californians’ quality of life. The Berkeley-based activist blamed Newsom and big-city progressives in the state for exacerbating the homelessness crisis and planting the seeds for the rise in violent crime.

With no major political party backing him, however, Shellenberger struggled to gain traction in the primary, as did the two dozen other unheralded challengers. Nor was history on their side, as no California governor has lost a race for reelection since 1942.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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