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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

By Michael Finnegan, Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — Republicans trying to unseat California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Kamala Harris share a common complaint: The two Democrats are so confident of re-election that they’re already laying ground to run for governor in 2018.

“She’s looking right past us,” David King, a Harris challenger, told a recent gathering of Republican women in Thousand Oaks.

Newsom and Harris, two of the best-known Democrats on the June 3 ballot, insist they’re taking nothing for granted.

Both deny they’re focused on 2018.

But the weak standing of their Republican challengers, all of them far behind in both fundraising and name recognition, is emblematic of this year’s lopsided and low-key California elections, with Democrats well-positioned to keep their grip on every statewide office.

It has also fueled speculation about whether a clash between Newsom, 46, and Harris, 49, the leading San Francisco politicians of their generation, is inevitable.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that they’re on a collision course for running for governor in 2018,” said Garry South, a former Newsom consultant who was chief political strategist for former Governor Gray Davis.

Much can change in California’s election climate over the next four years. Among the biggest unknowns: Will Senator Barbara Boxer, 73, seek re-election in 2016, and will Senator Dianne Feinstein, 80, run for another term in 2018?

If either Senate seat opens up, the calculus could shift for Newsom, Harris, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and other Democrats weighing a run for governor.

For now, Newsom and Harris appear minimally engaged in the June 3 primary, apart from raising money that — if they don’t need it this year — can be rolled into a 2018 campaign.

“It seems remarkably quiet,” Newsom said. “It’s surreal.”

The torpor is due largely to the state’s highest-profile contest. No Republican or member of any other party, so far, is posing a serious threat to Governor Jerry Brown. In the most recent Field poll, the Democrat was running a staggering 40 percentage points ahead of his top challenger, Republican Assemblyman Tim Donnelly of Twin Peaks, a tea party favorite.

Nationally, Republicans are in relatively strong shape as they try to recapture the U.S. Senate in a year when President Barack Obama’s popularity is low. But in California, the huge fundraising lead that Newsom and Harris have each established over Republican rivals underscores how hard it is to bounce a Democrat from statewide office in the deeply blue state.

In March, when the most recent complete fundraising reports were filed, Newsom showed $1.9 million in cash on hand, and Harris $3.2 million.

Since then, labor unions, lawyers, Silicon Valley executives, hedge fund managers and others have given an additional $171,000 to Newsom and $400,000 to Harris.

For Harris’ four Republican challengers, money has been harder to get. They reported a total of zero cash on hand in March. Two of Newsom’s were also empty-handed; the third had $62 in the bank.

Since then, the seven Republicans combined have reported raising just over $31,000, making it close to impossible for any of them — or for the six others on the ballot for attorney general or lieutenant governor — to mount a viable campaign in a state with nearly 18 million voters.

But they’re trying to make do.

At the Thousand Oaks golf club gathering, King and another Republican Harris opponent, former state Senator Phil Wyman of Tehachapi, took turns bashing the attorney general’s record in remarks to members of Conejo Valley Republican Women Federated.

Wyman reminded the crowd of his proposal to punish elected officials convicted in corruption cases involving gun violence with execution by public hanging, firing squad or lethal injection.

“That’s what I stand for, the rule of law,” he told the group.

King, a San Diego attorney active in local Republican politics, rolled his eyes when asked about Wyman’s long-shot candidacy. As for his own, he said: “I jumped in because we don’t have a credible candidate, and I don’t believe in surrendering a state.”

Former state Republican chairman Ron Nehring offered a similar rationale for his own candidacy for lieutenant governor.

“Gavin Newsom treats this office like it is a taxpayer-funded gubernatorial exploratory committee for 2018, and everybody knows that,” said Nehring, whose campaign road trip from San Diego to Santa Maria on Wednesday included a dinner stop at Pea Soup Andersen’s in Buellton.

Photo: Amy The Nurse via Flickr
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