Can a conservative break through for California attorney general?
The last time California voters elected a Republican to statewide office, Gavin Newsom was the youthful mayor of San Francisco, Mark Zuckerberg had just opened up Facebook to non-college students and Donald Trump was a Democratic celebrity tycoon wrapping up the sixth season of “The Apprentice.”
That was 16 years ago.
Now Newsom is the silver-haired governor running for his second term, Zuckerberg is an election-shaping tech mogul pushing middle age and Trump — well, you know all about him.
A lot has changed about politics since 2006, but not the California Democratic Party’s undefeated record for statewide office.
Republicans and conservative independents are hoping that 2022 might finally be the year they break the winning streak. And they’re pinning their hopes on the race for California attorney general.
Now it’s just a matter of picking the right candidate for the job: A conservative without a party label? A self-described “pragmatic” Republican? Or a GOP candidate from the party’s MAGA wing?
“The momentum is there,” Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert told CalMatters reporters and editors this week. The top-funded challenger to Democratic incumbent Rob Bonta, she left the GOP in 2018 and will be listed on the ballot with “no party preference.”
“Public safety will transcend politics,” she said. “And this is the moment for that to happen.”
It’s an optimistic line echoed by Nathan Hochman, a Los Angeles lawyer and former federal prosecutor. Hochman is a Republican, but one who has so far resisted taking many specific policy positions and instead emphasizes his long and varied legal resume and his nonpartisan instincts.
Like Schubert, he predicts that, amid heightened public concern over safety, voters are “going to look beyond the party.”
Though Eric Early — who holds base-appealing views on “critical race theory,” gun control and COVID vaccine requirements — acknowledges that running against an incumbent Democrat in California is “always tough,” he is especially hopeful this year.
“If you’re going to take one statewide position, at one point in time in California, where a non-Democrat could win, it’s the attorney general position,” said Early, a Los Angeles lawyer who ran unsuccessfully for attorney general in 2018 and for Congress in 2020.
Money, incumbency and voter registration statistics still favor Bonta to keep the job. But his opponents do have a few things going for them in 2022. There’s the high price of gas, rising inflation, the low approval numbers of Democratic President Joe Biden and the electoral truism that the first midterm election after a new president is elected is almost always a bust for the party in power. Just ask any Republican running in 2018.
Those headwinds are blowing against all incumbent Democrats, but Bonta might be especially vulnerable. Crime — and public angst about it — are on the rise. Political discontent about law and order is beginning to express itself even in the liberal bastions such of San Francisco and Los Angeles, where District Attorneys Chesa Boudin and George Gascón are facing possible recalls. Bonta, a nine-year state legislator from Alameda who was appointed to the position by Newsom in 2021, has never run for statewide office and may lack broad name recognition as a result.
Three ways to take on Bonta
Schubert, Hochman and Early represent different approaches on how to unseat a sitting Democrat in California.
Hochman’s theory of the case relies on the Republican Party’s known, if admittedly unpopular, brand in California, plus its credibility on law and order. “When voters are looking at the ballot, they’re going to see ‘party preference: Republican.’ And I believe when it comes to safety and security, that’s not a negative,” he said.
So far, Hochman has also gone out of his way to skirt some of the controversies that might alienate otherwise left-leaning voters.
Early makes an even more confident argument about the GOP’s appeal this year. He predicts that concern about crime is not only going to persuade the state’s Democratic-inclined voters to overlook the party label for California attorney general, but also to embrace some of the party’s most conservative principles. “I think being a Republican might actually help.”
Neither Republican was particularly impressed with Schubert’s strategy of running with no party preference. “What does that actually stand for?” Hochman asked in his interview with CalMatters reporters.
Early was more direct: “Independents always reserve their right to basically change positions back and forth…I don’t think that that’s fair to the voters, frankly.”
But Schubert’s platform has been consistent so far. Her campaign platform may be every bit as “tough on crime” as Hochman’s, if not more so. But steering clear of a party label, she is positioning herself as a professional prosecutor outside the partisan fray. Her campaign is also a test of whether right-of-center policies can fly in California if they’re severed from the unpopular partisan label that so often accompanies them.
Schubert isn’t the first former Republican to take a shot at a statewide office as an independent. In 2014, Dan Schnur, after a long career working for Republicans including former Gov. Pete Wilson and the late Arizona Sen. John McCain, ran for secretary of state with “no party preference.” He won less than 10% of the vote.
Four years later, Steve Poizner, the former Republican insurance commissioner, ran for his old position — only without the “R” next to his name. He fared quite a bit better, but despite spending more than $1.5 million of his own money, he lost to the current commissioner, Democrat Ricardo Lara.
Schnur, now a professor at USC’s Annenberg School of Communications, said he’s more optimistic about Schubert’s chances.
“Before I ran, smart people told me that an independent candidate would need two things to win a statewide race in California: An issue that people cared deeply about, and an office that they understood,” he said. “I had neither of those things. Steve Poizner had one. Schubert may have both.”
Democratic political consultant Garry South, however, remains skeptical that anyone without a “D” next to their name on the ballot has a realistic chance for statewide office.
He rattles off a few statistics: The last time a Republican was elected California attorney general was 1994. The only time a political independent made it to the November election under the top-two primary system was Poizner, a millionaire who used to hold the office he was seeking. The last time an appointed attorney general ran for election was Xavier Becerra in 2018 and the Democrat beat his Republican opponent, Steven Bailey, by 27 percentage points.
“There is just no recent history in California to suggest that a Republican can win statewide office and there is no history to suggest that an (independent) candidate has any kind of advantage,” South said. “I defy anyone to explain to me how Anne Marie Schubert escapes those bare-ass facts.”
‘It’s still California’
In a survey released this month by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, 23% of registered voters named crime and public safety as their top concern. That was the third most popular pick after the cost of housing and homelessness. But the partisan breakdown was telling: Crime was far and away the first choice among GOP voters, with 39% of registered Republicans calling it their top issue. Among Democrats, it came fifth, behind housing, homelessness, climate change and gas prices.
That partisan breakdown mirrors a February poll from the Public Policy Institute of California, which found that Republican likely voters were nearly three-times as likely as Democrats to say crime, gangs and drugs should be the state government’s top priority.
But even if public safety does grow to become a more dominant and bipartisan concern, it’s not clear voters will take out their uncertainty on the incumbent California attorney general, said Dean Bonner, associate survey director at the institute.
“That’s the first connection that needs to be made: This is an incumbent and this person’s job is attached to crime,” he said. “I do wonder if the average voter would make that connection.”
Perhaps more importantly, there’s the underlying political math that has thwarted California Republicans for decades. At last count, 47% of the state’s 22 million voters are registered Democrats and most of them — time and again — vote for the Democrat. That’s compared to 24% who are Republican. That creates a “real conundrum” for right-of-center candidates who need both the GOP base and a majority of independents to overcome the power of the mostly unified Democratic voting bloc, said Mike Madrid, a Republican political consultant and vociferous critic of the GOP’s embrace of Donald Trump.
“Can it be done? It absolutely can be done. Has it been done before? No,” said Madrid. “Bonta is particularly vulnerable at this point In time, but it’s still California.”