P■ Rusty Strait / Senior Reporter
rior to 1982, few Californians outside San Diego had heard of Pete Wilson, the moderate Republican mayor of that city and a former state assemblyman. But Wilson whipped the outgoing Gov. Jerry Brown that year to become a U.S. senator, sending Brown into almost 20 years of political exile during which he worked with Mother Teresa and conducted a radio talk show, among other activities.
Wilson later won the governor’s office in 1988, eventually turning to the right, especially on the issue of immigration, and along the way ushered in today’s era of almost absolute Democrat rule in the state.
Now Kevin Faulconer, another moderate Republican San Diego mayor, mulls the idea of running for governor soon after allowing his city’s professional football franchise to move 100 miles north to Los Angeles. Faulconer knows the state’s Top Two primary election system, adopted via Proposition 14 in 2010, could give him a leg up not enjoyed by any of the several strong – on paper – Democratic possibilities to succeed Brown when he’s termed out of his second go-’round as governor late next year.
This will be about party discipline. Republicans saw in 2016 what a lack of that quality can do: Because five at least seemingly credible Republicans ran in last year’s primary for the U.S. Senate seat later won by Democrat Kamala Harris, the party for the first time in memory did not field a runoff election candidate for a top-of-the-ticket California office.
This came about when former GOP state party chairmen George (Duf) Sundheim and Tom Del Beccaro, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz, former legislator Phil Wyman and former state Treasurer nominee Greg Conlon all ran.
With a bare 26 percent of the electorate registered Republican, those five split a smallish pot of votes. Together they netted 21.1 percent in the primary, while Harris topped 39 percent and fellow Democrat Loretta Sanchez got 18.9 percent. Top Two then saw Harris oppose Sanchez in the runoff, where Harris won handily.
If just one Republican had run in the primary, that candidate might have topped the Sanchez vote, and no one would have been quite certain what might happen in a runoff. The GOP lacked the discipline to pull this off. But Republicans saw what happened when credible candidate Ashley Swearengin, then mayor of Fresno, made the runoff for state controller and nearly won.
It’s Democrats who now face issues of party discipline in the just-begun run for governor. Their corps of candidates, declared and not, includes Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, state Treasurer John Chiang, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, financier Tom Steyer – star of a plethora of liberal commercials during last fall’s presidential campaign – and former state Schools Supt. Delaine Eastin.
If they all run, be sure only one Democrat will make the November 2018 ballot. A primary with so many major Democrats would likely splinter the party’s vote.
Meanwhile, Faulconer today is the only major Republican officeholder seriously considering a run. He ran second behind Newsom in the first major survey on this contest. But he’s not certain whether to run, perhaps because he knows that if one or two more other Republicans get in, he might not muster enough primary votes to make the runoff. Also contemplating a run is PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, who has never run for any office but backed President Trump heavily last year.
One possibility: If Faulconer and just one other Republican – possibly Thiel – get in and no Democrats get out, the two Republicans could conceivably make the runoff over all Democrats, even in a state thoroughly dominated by Democrats.
So this time, the Democrats will need to make hard choices. Some current prospects will have to peel off and settle for another office, as Newsom did in 2010, after briefly opposing Brown for governor. Or else, the same thing could happen statewide as did twice in congressional races soon after the advent of Top Two – so many Democrats entered primaries in strongly Democratic districts that they ended up being represented for a while by Republicans because of a splintered Democratic primary vote.
So far, no Democrat now running or thinking about it appears to have given this much thought. But unless party officials bang a few inflated heads together, California could see a monumental political surprise.
Email Thomas Elias at email@example.com. His book, “The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It,” is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net