In Governors Races, Republican Survives in California While Women Thrive Elsewhere

Tuesday's primaries were a win for the California GOP and women, who advanced in four of the five states voting on candidates for governor.
by | June 6, 2018
U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham won the Democratic nomination for New Mexico governor on Tuesday. (AP/Juan Labreche)

Republicans appeared to score two major victories in the Democratic stronghold of California on Tuesday. They secured a spot for a GOP gubernatorial candidate in the November election, and they deprived Democrats of a supermajority in the state legislature.

The California contests were among many high-stakes primary races decided Tuesday, with voters in five states going to the polls to choose governors and other statewide officials.

In the four other states -- Alabama, Iowa, South Dakota and New Mexico -- women running for governor fared well. In fact, it’s possible that each of those states could elect a female governor in November. That’s especially significant for South Dakota, which is one of 22 states that has never elected or appointed a woman as governor.

But the stakes Tuesday were especially high in California. The state’s primary system does not guarantee that both Democratic and Republican candidates make it to the November ballot.

The big question going into California’s primary elections Tuesday was whether a Republican could survive the top-two primary to have a chance, however remote, at taking the governor’s office. Republicans feared that not having a candidate in the November election would not only thwart their goals in Sacramento but would also keep GOP voters away from the polls for key congressional races.

As expected, though, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a former San Francisco mayor, easily took the top spot. So the attention turned to who would finish second: former Los Angeles Mayor and Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa or John Cox, a Republican endorsed by President Donald Trump.

Cox, a perennial candidate who only recently moved from Illinois, easily won the No. 2 spot, a remarkable rebuke for Villaraigosa, who only a decade ago was considered a rising star in the Democratic Party.

So instead of a nuanced debate over how best to achieve liberal policies in a state that overwhelmingly supported Hillary Clinton in 2016, the California governor’s race is more likely to be a clear-cut decision between candidates on opposite sides of the political spectrum.

“California’s vision and America’s values are one and the same,” Newsom said Tuesday. “But our values, as you know, are under assault. We’re engaged in an epic battle, and it looks like voters will have a real choice between a governor who will stand up to Donald Trump and a foot solider in his war on California.”

Cox painted the race as a referendum on Democrats’ stewardship of the state in the eight years since Gov. Jerry Brown took the state’s top job.

“It wasn’t Donald Trump that made California the highest-taxed state in the country, it was Gavin Newsom and the Democrats… Your party has made a colossal mess of this once-golden state,” Cox said of Democrats during his victory speech Tuesday. “This is only the first step to turning around this state and taking back California for all Californians.”

The stark choice is no accident. Newsom raised Cox’s profile by attacking him in TV ads, so Republicans would coalesce around him rather than split their support between him and another GOP contender. The strategy effectively blocked Villaraigosa from eking out a second-place win.

Villaraigosa endorsed Newsom on Tuesday.

One issue that Cox has campaigned on is opposition to a gas tax hike last year that funded a major infrastructure program. Republicans also appear to have used that issue to oust a freshman Democratic legislator, Sen. Josh Newman, and replacing him with a Republican.

The rare recall could weaken Democrats’ power at the Capitol because it deprives them of the supermajority in the Senate needed to pass tax and fee increases.

But Assembly Democrats have operated for several months without a supermajority because of vacancies caused by sexual harassment scandals. And most major tax bills -- including the gas tax hike -- have passed with a one or a handful of Republican votes as well.

Meanwhile, in other states:

 

Alabama

Gov. Kay Ivey, who assumed office after her predecessor resigned in scandal last year, won the Republican nomination and the upper hand in the November general election. Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle came closest to Ivey in a crowded field, but it was a distant second-place finish. Ivey beat him by a 2-1 margin and cleared the 50-percent threshold she needed to avoid a runoff.

Ivey became governor during a tumultuous period in Alabama politics. She took over for Robert Bentley, who left office under threat of impeachment for misusing his office to reward friends and cover up a purported affair with a top staffer. In the months before Bentley left, the House speaker stepped down amid criminal charges for violating ethics rules. And Roy Moore had just been removed -- for a second time -- as the state’s chief justice, this time for failing to honor a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage.

Ivey’s main task has been to restore Alabamians’ faith in their government. She faced some criticism for backing Moore’s unsuccessful U.S. Senate bid last year. But by and large, she gave her opponents little fodder to attack her with. Ivey had previously been elected as lieutenant governor and state treasurer. The state’s GOP establishment seemed to coalesce around her.

“We promised the people that we would restore their faith in government,” Ivey told supporters after her win. “We promised we would clean up the mess in Montgomery.”

On the Democratic side, Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox had a similarly lopsided victory over Sue Bell Cobb, who served as Alabama’s first woman chief justice from 2007 to 2011.

Both candidates featured prominently in state news prior to this year’s race. Cobb pulled off a rare Democratic win during a multimillion dollar race to become the state’s top jurist, in part with the help of a memorable ad featuring her and the church song “This Little Light of Mine.” But in a dozen years as mayor of Tuscaloosa, the home of the University of Alabama’s flagship campus, Maddox has helped the city recover from the Great Recession and devastating tornadoes that killed 53 people seven years ago.

“We will repave our roads and rebuild our bridges while tearing down the obstacles to the ballot box,” Maddox said in his victory speech. “You can’t call yourself a patriot if you’re scared of democracy.”

 

Iowa

Like Ivey, Gov. Kim Reynolds is new to the governor’s job. She took over for six-term GOP governor Terry Branstad after he became the U.S. ambassador to China last year.

But unlike Ivey, Reynolds had no Republican challenger Tuesday. That meant the biggest fight was for the Democratic nomination to face Reynolds in November. Fred Hubbell, a retired insurance executive, took more than half the vote in the crowded Democratic field.

The Democratic contest looked like it would be far more competitive until just a few weeks ago. But one of the leading candidates, Nate Boulton, a state senator, abruptly suspended his gubernatorial campaign two weeks ago after three women accused him of sexual misconduct. His sudden departure from the race left Democrats worried that no candidate would clear the 35 percent threshold needed to avoid a party convention to select a nominee. In the end, Hubbell cleared that mark easily.

Reynolds began attacking her Democratic opponent even before he was declared the winner.

Just a few weeks ago, Reynolds signed a law that she claims is the largest tax cut in Iowa history, which would reduce income taxes for most Iowa taxpayers by $300 a year. It was a major priority of hers in this year’s legislative session, and it’s clear that pocketbook issues will be a major theme of her upcoming campaign as well.

“The issue isn’t that Fred Hubbell has been rich his entire life, it’s that he has no idea what it’s like not to be. He has no idea what it’s like to balance a family checkbook or make the tough decisions most of us make each and every day when we are trying to make ends meet,” she said Tuesday.

Hubbell attacked Reynolds and the Republican-led legislature for “an extreme agenda” that included a major Medicaid privatization effort and new abortion restrictions she signed.

“Iowa voters have had enough of the heartless and misguided policies and priorities that have taken our state backwards,” he said.

 

New Mexico

New Mexico’s governorship is up for grabs after eight years of Republican control because incumbent Gov. Susana Martinez is term-limited. On Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham won the Democratic nomination. She will face another member of the state’s congressional delegation, U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, a Republican, in the November election.

Lujan Grisham held cabinet positions in New Mexico state government before serving three terms in Congress. She wants to promote more green energy projects in the state, strengthen gun laws and raise the minimum wage to $10 an hour. Lujan Grisham also wants the state to make it easier for non-citizens to get permission to drive in the state. It’s an issue that, for more than a decade, has roiled the state, which has sizable Hispanic and Native American populations. During her tenure, Martinez made tougher rules on driver’s licenses a top campaign issue and legislative priority, with limited success.

Lujan Grisham has taken heat, though, over her stake in a company that administered New Mexico’s high-risk insurance pool, which covers people with severe medical conditions who cannot get insurance as well as unauthorized immigrants who cannot get coverage through federal programs.

The general election is likely to be one of stark contrasts, since Pearce, who represents the southern part of the state, is a staunch conservative and member of the U.S. House’s Freedom Caucus. Pearce, a Vietnam veteran, is stressing the need to rejuvenate the state’s economy, reduce crime and poverty, and increase accountability in schools. But his conservative record could be a liability in a state that Clinton carried in 2016 and where most major offices are held by Democrats.

 

South Dakota

Another member of Congress, U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem, is likely to become South Dakota’s first female governor, after she secured the Republican nomination in the heavily GOP state on Tuesday. A Democrat hasn’t won a gubernatorial election in the state since 1974.

Noem defeated Attorney General Marty Jackley in the Republican primary. Both enjoyed statewide recognition because Noem represented the entire state as her U.S. House district. But Noem’s campaign was able to tie Jackley to the “status quo” in scandals that shook state government while she was in Washington, helping to push Trump’s agenda. Jackley, who represented South Dakota in a U.S. Supreme Court case to decide whether the state can collect taxes on online sales, accused Noem of undermining that case with a press release that was cited during oral argument by the state’s opponent in the case.

Noem will face Democrat Billie Sutton, a well-funded state senator, in the November election.

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