Front-runner’s fierce opposition to president sets up high-stakes clash

SAN DIEGO — In the race to become governor of the nation’s most populous state, a place that has become synonymous with liberal resistance to Donald Trump, the president has seemed ­ever-present.

The Democratic front-runner in Tuesday’s primary, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, has campaigned with a promise of fierce combat against a president widely unpopular here. As he made his way around the state over the weekend, his Twitter feed spliced pictures of his four telegenic children, accompanying him on the campaign bus, with acid gibes at Trump’s handling of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, and it mixed praise of fellow Democrats with sharp criticisms of the National Rifle Association.

His Democratic challenger, former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, has tried with less evident success to rally Latinos upset with Trump’s immigration positions, recently venturing to the border here for an appearance.

California wanted its primary election system to be different. But it's not turning out that way. (Jordan Frasier, Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

Republican John Cox, a little-known businessman, has won ­late-primary attention with Trump’s endorsement, part of the president’s effort to ensure a GOP candidate makes the November ballot under the unusual primary rules.

Under any scenario, the response to Trump after Gov. Jerry Brown (D) leaves office will be different. In his political twilight, the popular governor has strategically balanced cooperating with the president and confronting him. (True to a brand-of-his-own politics, Brown has said he will not make an endorsement in the race to replace him.)

Newsom — at 50, he is 30 years younger than Brown — is a founding father of the Trump resistance, a former San Francisco mayor who gained notice more than a decade ago for promoting same-sex marriage and other liberal causes that are now party orthodoxy but which, at the time, angered Democrats who blamed him for a backlash against the party.

His expected victory Tuesday, if confirmed in November, would return Newsom to national prominence in a different form, aligned with a party whose activists have grown far more liberal in the intervening years. The winner also will ascend to one of the few roles in American politics with the prestige to act as a counterweight to the presidency, as Brown and his predecessor, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, proved, and instantly be a player in the 2020 presidential race.

But Newsom also is taking nothing for granted, forestalling conversations about his future until the present race is concluded. During a recent visit with senior citizens here, he warned them not to let national politics overshadow the pressing issues in the Republic of California.

“Who knows we’re having a little election on June 5? Raise your hands?” Newsom asked about 100 people gathered here at the Gary and Mary West Senior Wellness Center.

“Just making sure you weren’t too preoccupied with Donald Trump.”

The irony is that few state candidates have been more focused on Trump than Newsom, to his political benefit.

The biggest question Tuesday is which of the trailing candidates Newsom will face after the primary, in which the top two finishers advance to the general election regardless of party. Newsom would prefer Cox, given the overwhelming advantage Democrats hold here, and has dipped into his flush campaign account to boost the Republican’s primary prospects.

Villaraigosa embodies the community most targeted by Trump, but his ethnicity has not appeared to serve as a propellant.

Within eyeshot of the lectern where the former mayor and Assembly speaker spoke last week about his view of California’s values, a border wall that predates Trump runs along a ridgeline. Villaraigosa, in a suit and tie amid the dust, struggled at times to speak above the two Black Hawk helicopters that patrolled noisily overhead. Before him were 40 students from San Jose who had driven south in a big white bus to see the frontier and speak with leaders of Border Angels, a nonprofit group that leaves food and water in the dry, chaparral-covered hills here for migrants coming across.

“Some people, particularly President Trump and a majority in the Congress, see that border as a dividing line, a place of conflict,” he said. “I choose to see and I think most of us choose to see that border as an opportunity.”

The contest between Villaraigosa, with his political base in the state’s south, and Newsom, who draws much of his support from the Bay Area, appeared early on to be one between state heavyweights. But Villaraigosa, 65, has been out of public office for nearly five years and simply hasn’t caught on.

“It’s always harder to get back in once you’ve been out,” said Matt Barreto, a political science and Chicano studies professor at UCLA.

Most striking, Villaraigosa does not seem to be appealing to Latinos at the levels he needs, according to recent polls that political analysts say show him “underperforming” with a growing, politically motivated segment of the electorate. Latino turnout has long been predicted to be decisive in California, but it is often lower than anticipated.

Villaraigosa, who is to the right of Newsom on education reform and other issues, has been helped by a group of wealthy donors who favor broader government support for charter schools.

The group, which includes former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, Netflix chief executive Reed Hastings and Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad, has spent more than $22 million on Villa­raigosa’s behalf. It is the single largest independent effort in California primary history, yet Villa­raigosa has only dropped further in polls since it began. Newsom has the teachers’ unions, among other stalwarts of the Democratic Party.

Villaraigosa’s prospects for advancing were better when there were three Republicans in the field, each taking a share of the others’ vote. Now there are only two — Cox and Assemblyman Travis Allen, an unabashed Trump supporter from Huntington Beach — who Republican strategist Rob Stutzman said would have to split the vote almost equally for Villaraigosa to finish second.

“It’s this jujitsu that Villaraigosa has to perform,” Stutzman said. “And it’s possible he will, but it will really be threading a needle if so.”

Even Villaraigosa’s appearance near the border illustrated his problems. He was scheduled to speak at Chicano Park, in south San Diego, where his audience almost surely would have been larger and more tangibly impactful than the gathering of middle school students he addressed. But a group called Union del Barrio planned to demonstrate, taking issue with his commitment to immigrant rights, although he supports the sanctuary-state policy and most forms of public assistance to the state’s 2.5 million undocumented residents. At the last minute, the event was moved to the Tijuana River Valley, a half-hour drive south.

Cox is a 62-year-old white conservative in a state where the electorate is increasingly young, brown and liberal. He runs for office a lot, and has yet to win. He dropped out of the 2004 race for U.S. Senate in his home state of Illinois, where he debated the eventual winner, Barack Obama. He ran for president in 2008 and lost again. This time out, he has become that rare Republican who did not vote for Trump in 2016 but wrangled his endorsement anyway.

“I wasn’t sure he was a conservative,” Cox said, referring to why he chose Libertarian Gary Johnson over Trump.

Trump has twice tweeted his support for Cox, and the president’s campaign organization released a video of daughter-in-law Lara Trump touting Cox.

“California finally deserves a great Governor, one who understands borders, crime and lowering taxes. John Cox is the man — he’ll be the best Governor you’ve ever had. I fully endorse John Cox for Governor and look forward to working with him to Make California Great Again!” Trump tweeted on May 18.

But Cox is up against unforgiving math. Only 25 percent of the electorate is Republican, third behind Democrats and nonpartisan voters. Overall, a recent Berkeley IGS poll found two-thirds of the state’s voters disapproved of Trump.

Newsom’s pitch has mixed gibes at the president with appeals that often steer toward California’s emerging voters — important not only in this race, but also in any future endeavors. During his visit to the San Diego senior center, he spoke about “cultural competency” and “scaling” and “intergenerationality.”

Sleeves rolled up, blazer left on the bus emblazoned with his name in sky-blue script, Newsom stalked the room with mic in hand. While Villaraigosa spoke at a symbolic location, in front of students too young to vote, New­som planted himself in a senior center that will serve as a polling place on Tuesday, appealing to reliable voters in the place they will cast ballots.

In the room marked by Padres hats and Nike hats and military service hats, where raisins and danishes adorned the tables, New­som mixed wonkery and sentiment.

“Social isolation,” he told the audience, “is the most preventable cause of death there is. There is a need to be loved and ultimately to love.”

The center brings together social and medical services, including a state-of-the-art dental practice, that received spontaneous cheers when Newsom mentioned it.

“I’ve never had an audience applaud for a dental clinic,” he joked.

Newsom has millions in his campaign account and credentials that appeal to liberals in the south, just as they do to his Northern California base.

But he angered some Democrats recently when he ran advertising that some said helped boost the Cox candidacy, which Democrats say could increase Republican turnout in key congressional races.

The ad criticizes Cox for opposing gun control and says he “stands with Donald Trump and the NRA.” But it has had the effect of consolidating GOP support around him, and Newsom has not denied that is his intention.

While others debate his move, Newsom is clear on what he wants: the easiest path forward for November.

“I obviously would love to see a Republican in this race, if I am in it,” Newsom told a radio station last month. “That would be ideal.”