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Commentary: Three California races that could rock the June primary

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It would be easy to think that Democratic dominance in California will make this year’s state election a total snooze. After all, the March 11 deadline for candidates to jump into the races came and went with few surprises.

The power bind of Democratic incumbents was most evident at the top of the ticket, where Gov. Gavin Newsom and US Senator Alex Padilla will face little-known challengers yet to raise big bucks. There were also no notable contenders in the races for lieutenant governor, secretary of state, treasurer, or principal—all positions held by Democrats. The power of the incumbent, the tremendous cost of running a campaign in this vast state, and the inability of Republicans to win a statewide race in 16 years (even if the rules gave them an unfair advantage in last year’s recall campaign). collectively, ambitious politicians are barred from running for most state offices.

This is frustrating because democracy works best when voters feel they have real choices and politicians feel they have to prove their worth in every election. More than half of voters in a recent poll said California is going in the wrong direction, but leadership in the state government seems likely to stick with the status quo.

Usually.

Three statewide races this year will test Democratic hegemony and the relevance of California’s move to shake up the bipartisan system with an open primary. Each presents a different model of how politics evolves to boost competition in a functional one-party state:

The competition for the obscure office of insurance commissioner shows fractures in the democratic establishment.

Democratic Rep. Marc Levine is challenging incumbent Democrat Ricardo Lara with a campaign in which he blasted Lara for accepting campaign contributions from insurance company officials, though he said he was following in the tradition of his predecessors and moving on from funds away from the industry it regulates. lara returned the money in 2019.

He won the support of the California Democratic Party and will have significant campaign support from progressive advocacy groups who see value in it his role as “America’s only LGBTQ+ person of color to hold statewide office.” But Levine is used to swimming upstream — he won his seat in the assembly in 2012 by challenging a Democratic incumbent. And the divide here does not fall cleanly along ideological lines; Levine also has support from progressive groups, including the California Nurses Assn. and the progressive caucus of the California Democratic Party.

This contest will address Democratic identity politics as well as the very real insurance issues that many Californians are grappling with as wildfires, exacerbated by climate change, become our new normal.

The biggest question in the primary is whether these two Democrats will make it to the general election, as several other individuals are also running. One who could stir up the race is Robert Molnar, a former Republican now registered with no party preference. He has worked closely for many years with former Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, who held the post from 2007 to 2011. Poizner, a wealthy tech entrepreneur, spent $1.6 million funding his own campaign as insurance commissioner in 2018, but ultimately lost to Lara. Molnar seems to take up Poizner’s torch as a centrist candidate arguing that the insurance commissioner shouldn’t be a partisan job.

The race for the powerful post of attorney general will test whether Californians have an appetite for bipartisan candidates.

As polls show Californians are increasingly concerned about crime, the race for the state’s top law enforcement officer could be the most important and dynamic on the ballot. Ann Marie Schubert, the Sacramento District Attorney, is a former Republican who left the party in 2018 and re-registered with no party preference. She said she has “views on both sides of the aisle”. As a lesbian supported by major law enforcement groups, she challenges Democratic Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta, a progressive who emphasizes social justice. Bonta was appointed to the position by Newsom after the previous attorney general took over from President Biden in his cabinet. So he may be more vulnerable than most incumbents given his first national run for office. Two prominent Republicans, Eric Early and Nathan Hochman, are also running.

This primary will test competing theories about the California electorate: Will a bipartisan candidate win the growing share of voters who are not registered with one of the major parties? Or are party designations essential abbreviations that help voters understand what candidates are about?

The open race for controller will determine whether a Republican can gain a foothold in this deep blue state.

The controller is essentially the state’s bookkeeper, an important but by no means conspicuous job that includes maintaining state payroll, auditing state operations, and serving on boards dealing with tax and finance. It has attracted a large field of four potentially viable Democrats and one Republican in this election because it is the only statewide unincumbent office. (Controller Betty Yee is being recalled.) The Democrats include Los Angeles City Controller Ron Galperin, Senator Steve Glazer, Malia Cohen, a member of the State Board of Equalization, and Monterey Park Mayor Yvonne Yiu.

Republican Lanhee Chen argues that the job requires an outsider willing to search the books and scrutinize Democrats’ administration of state government. He has an impressive resume — law and political science degrees from Harvard, stints as a political adviser on the presidential campaigns of Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio, and a fellowship to teach public policy at Stanford — and has already raised $1.8 million. As the son of Taiwanese immigrants, he also has a personal history that aligns more with modern-day California than many Republican candidates. Is this a package that can overcome the GOP’s horrid image among a majority of California voters?

We’ll find out this year if any of these strategies to disrupt the status quo work. If they do, they could provide a roadmap for more competitive statewide racing in 2026 and beyond — and that would be good for democracy in the Golden State.

— Laurel Rosenhall, member of the editorial board

https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2022-03-20/commentary-three-california-races-that-might-shake-up-the-june-primary Commentary: Three California races that could rock the June primary

Dais Johnston

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