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Wed12122018

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

In his year-and-a-half as California’s attorney general, Democrat Xavier Becerra has made a full-time job of fighting the Trump administration—filing more than 30 lawsuits to defend the environment, immigrants, birth-control access and more.

Which makes it odd that when Becerra’s supporters bought TV time to air a campaign commercial for him, they chose the most Trump-boosting network around: Fox News.

The ad spends 15 seconds describing Becerra in ways that likely repel the typical Fox viewer, saying he is “leading the resistance, defending Dreamers, stopping the wall, taking on the NRA.” But the other 15 seconds hails one of Becerra’s Republican opponents, Steven Bailey, as the “pro-gun, pro-life” candidate who “stands with President Trump (and) opposes sanctuary cities.”

It’s the latest in a series of twisted tactics now emblematic of campaign 2018: Why would a group trying to elect a Democrat promote his Republican opponent to a conservative audience? The answer: Because California’s election rules have turned normal campaign tactics on their head.

Under the state’s nonpartisan primary system, candidates from all parties appear on the same ballot, and voters can choose any of them. The two with the most votes on June 5—regardless of their party—advance to the November general election.

This “top two” system has scrambled traditional campaigning. Instead of candidates simply promoting themselves and attacking their opponents, campaigns are going to bizarre extremes to give certain opponents a boost, whether via old media (mailers and TV ads) or new (social platforms and texts). In some cases, they’re raising the profile of candidates they believe would be easier to beat in the general. In other cases, they’re propping up obscure opponents to shave votes from a more-formidable foe.

Think of these Machiavellian maneuvers as the political equivalent of a triple-bank pool shot. They’ve already spurred ethics complaints from two candidates for governor, alleging that campaign groups aren’t properly identifying whom their messages support.

“The ‘top two’ primary has really changed the decision-making calculations for campaigns,” said political consultant Garry South, a veteran of Democratic campaigns who is not working on any statewide races this election. “Things are happening that might look a little strange, but are probably pretty rational calculations.”

Some messages aim for niche audiences. Others, blasting more broadly, do double-duty, simultaneously promoting two opposing candidates in an attempt to boost a candidate’s preferred opponent.

The ad showing the leading Democratic and Republican candidates for attorney general is not paid for by either one. An independent committee largely funded by Realtors and labor unions paid for it, and disclosed in campaign finance reports that it supports Becerra and opposes Bailey. The race includes two other candidates: Democratic Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones and Republican attorney Eric Early. The ad appears to try to consolidate GOP support for Bailey, making it harder for Jones to get in the top two—and easier for Becerra to win in November.

“I can’t speak to the motivations of an outside group, but they do see Judge Bailey as the strongest alternative,” said Bailey spokesman Corey Uhden.

In deep-blue California, where just a quarter of voters are registered Republican, and the GOP hasn’t won a statewide office since 2006, many Democrats would rather face a Republican in November, because it virtually assures their victory. Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the front-runner in the race for governor, almost said as much at a recent debate when he said a Republican would be an “ideal” opponent in the fall.

Polls show the a tight race for second place between Republican John Cox and Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa, with many voters undecided and 24 other candidates on the ballot.

So Newsom is running ads that could help Cox consolidate the Republican vote. One does double-duty by contrasting Newsom’s work to pass stricter gun controls (an appeal to Democrats) with Cox’s support for the NRA (an appeal to Republicans). Newsom deployed a similar tactic after President Trump endorsed Cox, flooding cell phones with a text message announcing the news.

The response from Republicans? Some indicated on social media they thought the Newsom campaign had contacted them by mistake. Others identified it as a Democrat’s move to influence the GOP vote.

“Be careful what you wish for sneaky Gavin,” tweeted Tony Krvaric, chairman of the San Diego Republican Party.

Newsom spokesman Nathan Click said the campaign sent the text to Californians across the political spectrum: “That’s a good message for Republicans and Democrats.”

Villaraigosa’s campaign filed a complaint with the state’s political ethics watchdog about similar ads by a Newsom-backing group. The complaint says “the clear and cynical short-term goal” for Newsom and his supporters “is to manipulate the primary election and to make sure a Republican advances to the general election.”

The indignation is rich, since an independent group backing Villaraigosa is also trying to pull the puppet strings on the California electorate: Hoping to dilute Cox’s support among Republicans in order to launch Villaraigosa into the top two, the group is running ads that deride Cox and others that promote his GOP opponents. It sent GOP voters a mailer promoting Republican Robert Newman, an almost unknown candidate, and Assemblyman Travis Allen, Cox’s main competitor.

Another mailer it sent Republicans features a striking photo of the attractive Allen family in front of a military plane. Ben Avey, a member of the Sacramento County Republican Central Committee, assumed it was from Allen when he first pulled it from his mailbox. Then he flipped it over and read the fineprint: the ad was actually from the pro-Villaraigosa group.

“Even as a kind of sophisticated voter, I was kind of shocked it came from an independent expenditure supporting Antonio Villaraigosa, just because it was so bold in what it was doing,” Avey said. “There was some double jujitsu there.”

Cox filed an ethics complaint against the pro-Villaraigosa committee, alleging it broke the law by not reporting its support for the other Republican candidates on campaign-finance disclosures.

“It is a blatant attempt to split the Republican vote and get two Democrat candidates into the November election,” said Cox spokesman Matt Shupe.

Meanwhile, state Treasurer John Chiang, a Democrat struggling to gain traction in his campaign for governor, dispatched a press release blasting both Newsom and Villaraigosa for “turning to Republicans to advance their own personal gain.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California’s policies and politics.

Published in Politics

By many measures, the rambunctious campaign for a single-payer health-care system in California appears to be struggling.

A bill that would replace the existing health-care system with a new one run by a single payer—specifically, the state government—paid for with taxpayer money remains parked in the Assembly, with no sign of moving ahead. An effort by activists to recall Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon for shelving the bill has gone dormant. And an initiative that would lay the financial groundwork for a future single-payer system has little funding, undercutting its chances to qualify for the ballot. 

But even if single-payer is a lost cause in the short term, advocates are playing a long game. For now, it may well be less a realistic policy blueprint than an organizing tool.

And by that metric, advocates are making gains.

Riding a wave of enthusiasm from progressive Democrats, supporters of single-payer have effectively made it a front-and-center issue in California’s 2018 elections. It’s been discussed in virtually every forum with the candidates running for governor, emerged as a point of contention in some legislative races, and will likely be a rallying cry at the upcoming California Democratic Party convention.

“This issue is not going away,” said Garry South, a Democratic political consultant who has worked with the California Nurses Association, which sponsored the stalled single-payer bill. “The progressive elements who are supportive of the single-payer concept know that it’s not going to happen now; it’s not going to happen tomorrow. It’s a long-term process, and Jerry Brown is gone as of January 2019.”

The governor has not needed to stake a position on the bill, because it skidded to a stop in the Assembly last summer without reaching his desk. But state Sen. Toni Atkins, a San Diego Democrat who co-authored Senate Bill 562, said Brown was not receptive. Analyses peg the cost of a statewide single-payer system at between $330 billion and $400 billion—far exceeding the state’s entire budget. That made it an anathema to Brown’s record of prioritizing fiscal stability for state government.

“When the governor saw that we introduced that bill… all he could look at me and do is shake his head and say, ‘$400 billion dollars.’ And I kept trying to say, ‘Can we back up and talk about what you've got to do to get (there)?’" Atkins said in an interview.

“He wasn’t letting it go.”

Atkins, who will take over as Senate leader next month, said she’s not giving up on the goal of single-payer, but does not expect it to happen this year. “People are polarized on this issue in a way that’s not good for coming together to get it done,” she said.

Led by the nurses association—a labor union that embraces firebrand activism—supporters of single-payer have targeted Rendon after he shelved the bill last summer, saying it lacked critical information on how to pay for a massive overhaul of the healthcare system. They peppered social media with images that not only portrayed the bill fight as a boxing match between Rendon and the nurses, but also depicted a knife labeled “Rendon” back-stabbing the bear symbol of California.

The nurses were not involved in the campaign to recall Rendon, said recall organizer Stephen Elzie, who has since dropped the effort and is now helping Democrat Maria Estrada challenge Rendon’s re-election bid. But the nurses union leapt into the governor’s race as one of the first labor unions to endorse Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. Single-payer has emerged as one of few issues on which the Democratic candidates disagree.

Newsom and Delaine Eastin, the former state superintendent of schools, have both said they support the nurses’ single-payer bill. Fellow Democrats Antonio Villaraigosa, former mayor of Los Angeles, and John Chiang, the state treasurer, say they want to expand health care so that everyone is covered, but not necessarily with the single-payer model that would abolish private health insurers and replace them with a government-run system.

A coalition of medical groups is lobbying against the single-payer bill, arguing that it makes more sense to protect and expand the federal Affordable Care Act, which has increased the number of Californians who have health insurance. Some members of the coalition have a history of spending big money to sway California elections. One of them, the doctors’ association, donated to Newsom before he voiced support for single-payer; it’s not yet clear if they will shift support to another candidate. 

Almost two-thirds of Californians like the idea of a statewide single-payer health-care system, although enthusiasm drops significantly if it would require raising taxes, according to polling last year by the Public Policy Institute of California. Still, Californians didn’t cite health care as a top priority when asked last month what the Legislature and governor should focus on in 2018.

The Assembly just wrapped up a series of hearings on what it would take to create a health-care system that covers all Californians. It exposed many obstacles—in both federal and state law—to swiftly enacting single-payer. For one, the state would need permission from the federal government—and perhaps an act of Congress—to shift billions of dollars from Medi-Cal and Medicare into a state-run single-payer plan. For another, if lawmakers raised taxes to fund single-payer, voters would likely need to approve changes to the California Constitution to allow the money to go to health care instead of schools. (That’s the only single-payer initiative that someone is trying to get qualified for the ballot; while a Silicon Valley tech consultant is gathering signatures for it, he doesn’t have support from the nurses’ union or any other well-financed group.)

Assemblyman Jim Wood, a Healdsburg Democrat who chaired the panel, called the single-payer bill “aspirational” and said he’s instead considering legislation that could help more Californians get health care without requiring permission from the federal government. One idea: extending subsidized health plans to adults who are undocumented immigrants.

“I believe we can actually get to single-payer, once we go through a lot of study and a lot of work,” Wood said. “But this feels, at times, more like a litmus test.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics