Back in early November, the 2018 California governor's race was shaping up to be a tepid affair. Even with former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa poised to enter the fray, the election was expected to revolve around such issues as Gov. Jerry Brown's policy of fiscal prudence, California's role in reducing carbon emissions and managing the state's new legal marijuana economy.
Then Donald Trump happened.
“It changes the entire political environment, from Washington to California and back,” says Sean Clegg, a political consultant who's running the gubernatorial campaign for frontrunner Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. “And I think we’re in for two years that we haven’t seen in this country since the 1960s.”
Since Election Day, politicians have been tripping over themselves to denounce Trump and his cronies.
“With the appointment of Steve Bannon as 'chief strategist' Mr. Trump is effectively giving white supremacists and anti-Semites a seat at the table,” Secretary of State Alex Padilla said in a press release.
“While I have many concerns with President-elect Trump's nominations to date, the nomination of Senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions [as attorney general] is particularly troubling,” said California Attorney General (and U.S. Senator-elect) Kamala Harris in a press release.
L.A. city officials, meanwhile, have vowed to defy Trump should he order mass deportations of undocumented immigrants.
And so it seems the governor's race could very well become a contest of who can denounce Trump the loudest.
“If Hillary Clinton was in the White House, the governor's race would be a pretty much status quo election,” says Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. “With Donald Trump there instead, the Democratic base is going to be motivated to an unprecedented degree.”
Schnur says the political climate might favor the former L.A. mayor, who is also a former union organizer and a former president of the ACLU.
“Villaraigosa, by virtue of his personal and professional biography, benefits from that,” Schnur says.
In the past few years, Newsom has campaigned for legal marijuana and gun control. State Treasurer John Chiang, who's also thrown his hat in the gubernatorial ring, is best known for docking the majority-Democratic Legislature's pay for failing to pass a budget on time. Billionaire Tom Steyer, who is said to be mulling a run for governor, campaigned to fight climate change and pass a cigarette tax.
But Villaraigosa may be best positioned to stand up for immigrants and fight against mass deportations — or a wall on the Mexican border.
Of course, Villaraigosa faces plenty of challenges. For one thing, he isn't all that popular in Los Angeles. By the end of his second term as mayor, voters saw him as flaky and publicity-obsessed. Many of his goals, among them education reform and planting a million trees, were left unfinished.
A recent Field Poll found Newsom well ahead of the pack, with 23 percent of respondents favoring him. But that poll, which had Republican candidates Kevin Faulconer and Ashley Swearengin in second and third places, was taken before Nov. 8. California, which voted for Clinton over Trump by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, is unlikely to turn around and elect a Republican two years later.
“Newsom and Chiang bring considerable heft to the race,” Schnur says. “But it’s now incumbent on both of them to channel people's outrage as effectively as Villaraigosa can.”