California stuck in Dem-GOP binary

“If people just vote for an R or D then all of our conversations are a waste of time.”

GOP memorabilia at the California State Fair Republican Booth, in Sacramento, Calif. on Friday, July 15, 2022. Photo by Rahul Lal, CalMatters

Robert Howell, the Republican candidate for California insurance commissioner, shared that somewhat fatalistic sentiment — that voters cast ballots for candidates simply based on the letter designating their party affiliation — in a Los Angeles Times interview published Monday.

But, in the same interview, Howell appeared to reaffirm the very concept he was denouncing: He said he decided to run for insurance commissioner against Democratic incumbent Ricardo Lara because there initially weren’t any other Republicans in the race, giving him a better shot of advancing to the Nov. 8 general election. (Howell also acknowledged that he isn’t familiar with the nuts and bolts of the insurance industry, which he would be in charge of regulating if elected.)

In California — where the latest voter registration numbers show Democrats outnumbering Republicans nearly 2 to 1 — the R-D binary can make for less-than-exciting statewide elections.

Yet that’s the matchup voters will see on their November ballots for each of California’s eight statewide elected officers — an outcome likely due in part to an increasingly polarized electorate and the Golden State’s top-two primary system.

In seven of the races — including state superintendent of public instruction, which is officially a nonpartisan race — Democratic incumbents will face off against Republican challengers with little name recognition and limited funding. This dynamic suggests that even though some Democrats are embroiled in scandals and policy pitfalls, that won’t hinder them from sailing to reelection.

One of the incumbent officers dealing with numerous allegations is State Treasurer Fiona Ma, who addressed them in a nearly one-hour interview with CalMatters while also detailing some of her accomplishments and sharing some of the policies she hopes to advance if elected to a second term over Republican challenger Jack Guerrero. For more from Ma’s interview,check out these key takeaways from CalMatters’ Sameea Kamal.

In the eighth statewide race, Democrat Malia Cohen and Republican Lanhee Chen are vying to replace the termed-out Democrat Betty Yee as state controller. Chen is widely seen as the Republican Party’s best hope to win its first statewide office in nearly 20 years, but in the end it all may come down to numbers.
And those numbers don’t bode well for Republicans, who have increasingly struggled to field statewide candidates and find political messages that appeal to a majority of Californians.

Indeed, as Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton argued Monday, Republican gubernatorial candidate state Sen. Brian Dahle of Bieber is “likeable, level-headed and highly respected by colleagues of both parties.” But “there is no conceivable way” Dahle can win against Democratic incumbent Gov. Gavin Newsom in a deep-blue state where even no-party-preference voters lean liberal.

Skelton noted that Dahle doesn’t have enough campaign cash to run a statewide TV ad blitz, whereas Newsom has hardly been campaigning in California at all. Instead, he’s been leveraging the millions of dollars in his campaign warchest to support a statewide ballot measure to protect abortion rights in California’s constitution and to run ads and billboards in other states. (On Monday, Newsom and Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut announced a fundraising drive for a slate of candidates across the country that they said would stand up to the National Rifle Association.)

Nevertheless, Newsom and Dahle are set to hold a live gubernatorial debate on KQED — though the 1 p.m. time slot on Sunday, Oct. 23 isn’t exactly prime time. Another factor that could diminish the number of people tuning in: It coincides with San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Chargers football games.

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