It appears that California voters are opting for a traditional Democrat vs. Republican matchup for governor on the November ballot.
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, claimed one spot on the November ballot with a solid showing in Tuesday’s primary. San Diego County businessman John Cox, a Republican, separated himself from the rest of the pack in early returns, seemingly upending hopes that California’s jungle primary, coupled with the historic decline in GOP registration, would produce a contest between Newsom and a second Democrat, most likely former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who was trailing far behind.
If the numbers hold, voters can expect someone whose name won’t appear anywhere on the Nov. 5 ballot — we probably don’t need to tell you who — to cast a long shadow over the election.
Newsom, who hasn’t hidden his preference for a Republican opponent, promises fierce opposition to President Donald Trump. Count on this: He won’t miss an opportunity to tie Cox to Trump, whose approval rating in the Golden State is a dismal 31 percent.
As the Republican nominee, Cox would face something of a quandary. He has, at times, tried to distance himself from the president, but his platform takes some pages from Trump’s playbook: He wants to repeal the so-called sanctuary state law, which limits law enforcement cooperation with federal immigration authorities, and he supports a wall on the border.
Moreover, Cox got a late boost from the president — an endorsement delivered via Twitter (how else?) that may have pushed him into second place and onto to the November ballot.
Finessing his way with an unpopular president isn’t the only obstacle Cox faces. It has been 12 years since a Republican won a statewide election in California, and, continuing a long and steady decline, GOP voter registration recently slipped behind independents for the first time.
Even with an uphill fight, Cox’s presence on the ballot could help Republican candidates for other offices and a GOP-sponsored effort to repeal Senate Bill 1, the fuel taxes and vehicle fees that are pumping $5 billion a year into street and highway maintenance and public transit.
With gasoline approaching $5 a gallon, it may be tempting to vote for the repeal, which is likely to qualify for the Nov. 5 ballot. But that would undermine efforts to rehabilitate highways and add capacity to a transportation network that supports the fifth-largest economy in the world.
SB 1 money already is being spent in Sonoma County, and last month state transportation commissioners earmarked $85 million to fill the last Sonoma County gap in the Highway 101 widening project that started 12 years ago.
With the gas tax funding, a third lane in each direction through Petaluma and to the Marin County line should be completed by 2022. Without that money, it’s unclear when the project will be finished.
And, as Staff Writer Kevin Fixler reported last week, the infusion of gas tax money means that approval of Regional Measure 3 on Tuesday’s ballot would provide the money needed to open the final bottleneck, a segment of Highway 101 in northern Marin County where northbound traffic backs up during commute hour. Regional Measure 3 was leading in early returns.
If a late-night surprise produces a contest between Newsom and a second Democrat, the gas tax referendum might not rise to prominence. In a traditional match, it’s likely to be debated as vociferously as immigration, education, health care, housing, homelessness and California’s relations with the president. Expect fireworks.