Why Democrats win and lose with Newsom out of the governor’s race

And its now down to one.  The race for Governor among Democrats started off with a flourish, as many of the state’s leading Democrats threw their hat in the ring or at least were rumored to be considered running for the state’s highest office.  Now, however, with San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom dropping out, one lone  candidate remains – Attorney General Jerry Brown.

How did Jerry Brown essentially win the Democratic primary without a proverbial shot being fired (in the form of a television ad)?  
Most of the credit goes to Jerry Brown.  It turns out that he is just that good and that it is no accident as to why he has been such a successful candidate and gotten elected so often.  He started the race as the frontrunner and did an extremely effective job at consolidating that position – he raised money with a steely discipline and spent little of it, thus gaining a huge cash advantage over any potential rival; he effectively used a “Rose Garden” strategy of using his position as Attorney General to attract favorable media attention on relevant and popular issues of the day, such as most recently taking on Wall Street banks; he did not make any major mistakes, and he did not engage his opponents and give them an opening, even when the race had narrowed to a two-way race.   So, congratulations, Jerry Brown, you earned this victory.

What does this mean for Democrats?  

Fundamentally, this is good news for Democrats.  The likelihood that Jerry Brown will now run unopposed in the Democratic primary greatly improves Democrats’ odds of winning back the governorship of the nation’s largest state in what is now, and has been in recent years, a solidly blue state.  We have avoided a bloody and divisive civil war in the primary, which means Brown can conserve his resources and save them for the general election, where he will need them the most as he is likely to face a billionaire with essentially unlimited resources (either Meg Whitman or Steve Poizner).  Given their numbers advantage, Democrats should be running this state, so this bodes well for that.  

Importantly, Brown and California Democrats can now sit on the sidelines and watch the Republicans beat each other up in what will likely be a nasty and divisive primary fight between well-funded candidates who will spend millions of dollars attacking each other and leaving them in a weaker position for the general election.  

Newsom dropping out also has broader implications than just the governor’s race.  With Democrats’ now improved odds of winning at the top of the ticket, this helps every Democrat who will appear on the ballot, including Senator Barbara Boxer who is up for re-election and faces a well-funded opponent in former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina; Democratic state legislative candidates who won tough swing districts last election cycle but now face a grumpy electorate that is frustrated with the State Legislature, and Congressional Democratic candidates who are challenging potentially vulnerable Republican incumbents in districts that national Democrats are eyeing as potential takeovers.  Furthermore, since this is a “redistricting election” in that new district lines will be drawn over the next two years for State Legislature and Congress, the fact that Democrats have improved their odds of controlling both the governorship and the State Legislature strengthens Democrats’ position in the state and sets them up for continued dominance in California for the next decade.

Nevertheless, there is a downside to Jerry Brown running unopposed in the Democratic primary.  Democrats will not get a choice when it comes to selecting their nominee for governor.  The fact is Jerry Brown was governor 30 years ago and he is 71 years old.  It would have been nice for Democrats to have had a choice between Jerry Brown as the experienced hand and another candidate who comes from a different generation, such as San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom or Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.  Without a competitive race, we won’t benefit from a debate or contrast in ideas, vision, or leadership style.  

Also, remember what Democrats experienced in the 2008 presidential election –  a primary that presented a clear choice in leadership styles and generations between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.  Though that primary seemed divisive at the time, Democrats came together afterwards and the primary made Obama a stronger candidate.  Brown has not faced a tough election in years (since he ran for president in 1992, essentially), so getting battle-tested in the primary could have better prepared him for what will likely be a challenging general election when he will come under attack from a well-funded opponent.  A primary also would have allowed Jerry Brown to get his team together and build out a statewide operation, which takes time and effort to do well.  

Ultimately, with Gavin Newsom dropping out and Jerry Brown remaining as the only gubernatorial candidate, Democrats both win and lose.  They win because their chances of winning in November improve significantly.  But I do believe Democrats are worse off for not being able to have Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom share a debate stage together so we can see a veritable contrast in leadership style and generations to figure out who should lead the party and the state for the next four years and beyond.  

The best of democracy is when voters have a choice, and it appears that for governor in 2010, California Democrats won’t get to choose who they want as governor, they will simply get a nominee.  Fortunately for Democrats, that likely nominee is an experienced, talented, and popular candidate who can win in November.  This is a trade-off I am sure most Democrats are willing to accept.

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