Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio
The California governor’s race enters the home stretch Monday as counties begin sending out vote-by-mail ballots while Democrat Gavin Newsom and Republican John Cox meet for their only general election debate.
Newsom holds a wide lead over Cox in fundraising, although his strong advantage in polls has narrowed somewhat since the June primary.
In a state as blue as California, Cox knows he’ll need to appeal to voters who object to President Trump — and with the Newsom campaign’s significantly larger bank account, this debate could be one of Cox’s only opportunities to get his message out.
Newsom, the state’s lieutenant governor, is vowing to implement major new programs to help lift Californians out of poverty. Cox, a San Diego businessman, is campaigning on his ability to fix what he believes is a broken and mismanaged state government.
Ever since stories emerged of the hellacious hours-long California Department of Motor Vehicle waits, Cox has dropped by field offices to pass out water bottles to customers waiting in the summer heat.
At the Sacramento field office in late August, he slammed Democratic lawmakers for refusing to audit the DMV — and mocked the Legislature’s unmarked, private DMV office across the street from the state Capitol.
Lawmakers “go in there and they get their own licenses renewed in seconds,” Cox told a customer. “Because their time’s valuable. Yours isn’t. Yours isn’t worth very much, according to them!”
He’s hoping to use the DMV’s problems to reinforce his core message: California government is broken and mismanaged, and voters should elect a businessman to fix it.
“The political class is going to get their comeuppance on November 6,” Cox told reporters at the Sacramento DMV. “Because they have been making this state unaffordable and unlivable. And I for one have had enough of it, and I think most people in this state have had enough of it.”
Cox dodges questions about Trump and national politics — for example, he hasn’t given his opinion of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Instead, he zeroes in on California’s poverty and housing crises, and last year’s gas tax increase to fund transportation projects.
His campaign slogan? “Help is on the way.”
Newsom is promising a different kind of help. As he toured the Felton Institute’s family developmental center in San Francisco’s Mission District last week, he stepped into a class of two- and three-year-olds and knelt to talk to kids playing with baby dolls.
For years, legislative Democrats have sought additional state funding for preschool and child care programs. But termed-out Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown has only agreed to limited increases, citing budget constraints.
Newsom points to studies that say 85 percent of the brain has formed by age three.
“The brain actually starts pruning itself at the age of four,” he says. “If you don’t get to kids zero to three, we’re gonna continue to perpetuate the disparities that all of us are profoundly frustrated by. We talk about the achievement gap? The achievement gap starts before you enter into kindergarten.”
Universal preschool is just one of many campaign promises Newsom has made that come with hefty price tags. Others include universal health care, and increases to California’s Earned Income Tax Credit and welfare-to-work programs.
And he does not hesitate to criticize the president.
“I don’t wake up every morning looking to find a crowbar and put it in the spokes of President Trump’s wheels. I, however, will defend the values of this state,” he told reporters after touring the developmental center. “And so I will not be timid. I will not be shy in that respect. I’ll push back aggressively.”
The contrast between the two candidates’ stances toward the president is due to the political realities of running for governor in a blue state that overwhelmingly opposes him.
“You’ve got one not wanting to do anything with Washington, and the other feeling that it’s beneficial to define himself against the Washington political scene,” said Republican political consultant Beth Miller.
To catch up, she says, Cox needs as much media attention as he can get. But national politics are drowning out the governor’s race.
And after Newsom talked about Cox a lot in the primary to boost him above Democratic rivals, he’s now doing the opposite.
“It doesn’t behoove [Newsom] in the least to say John Cox’s name,” Miller said. “For him, he is campaigning like he is unopposed. And I think that benefits him in the long run, as maddening as that may be to John Cox.”
Also maddening to Cox is the lack of debates. After the two camps squabbled for weeks, they agreed to just Monday’s faceoff — our weeks before Election Day.
And in a state of nearly 40 million people where campaigns know they must reach voters on TV, the debate is radio-only.