Gavin Newsom and John Cox
Gavin Newsom (left) and John Cox. Campaign photos

Though Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, is widely expected to beat Republican John Cox in Tuesday’s race for governor of the deep blue state of California, 2016 has taught both pollsters and voters to be wary of predicting the future.

A final pre-election poll by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies showed Newsom leading Cox by 58 to 40 percent among likely California voters. That lead is due in part to strong support among non-partisan voters, who now outnumber Republicans statewide, as well as from Latino voters, who favor Newsom over Cox 73 percent to 26 percent.

Newsom told the Los Angeles Times he isn’t taking anything for granted.

“I’m anxious, always, because there’s a lot at stake. I don’t want to experience what we experienced in 2016,” Newsom told the newspaper in a reference to Donald Trump’s election.

Both candidates have maintained a heavy campaign schedule to the end, traveling up and down the state in the final days before the election.

Cox expressed confidence he can win the race, telling The Times, “We’re going to win because people in this state really want change.”

Newsom built his political career in San Francisco, where he was elected mayor in 2004. He drew national attention when, roughly a month after his swearing in, he directed the city-county clerk to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in violation of state law.

From 1996 to 2004, Newsom served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, where he championed a policy initiative dubbed “Care Not Cash,” slashing cash benefits for homeless individuals in favor of housing and services.

Now running to replace his boss, Gov. Jerry Brown, after serving two terms as his second-in-command, Newsom has proposed a goal of building 3.5 million new homes by 2025 through an expansion of the low-income housing tax credit program and other incentives. Another of his top priorities is universal healthcare for Californians and he has expressed support for Senate Bill 562 that aims to create a single-payer system, although Newsom has also raised concerns about the hurdles for passage and funding.

Newsom has promised to oppose the Trump administration’s immigration policies and gun control — setting himself in stark opposition to Cox — and has called for universal preschool and two years of free community college as part of a push to distinguish himself as more progressive than Brown.

Cox repeatedly points to the state’s high poverty rate, underperforming schools and lack of affordable housing as problems that happened “on Gavin Newsom’s watch” and says he would solve the state’s housing shortage by streamlining approval processes and changing the California Environmental Quality Act. Cox has also focused on repealing Brown’s $52 billion gas tax increase, which he calls a regressive tax, urging voters to support Proposition 6. Cox’s proposals on education focus on school choice and reallocating funds rather than new government spending.

After distancing himself from Trump early on in his primary campaign, Cox picked up the president’s endorsement before the June 5th primary. The San Diego-based businessman has since echoed some of Trump’s themes on the campaign trail, including his plan to “clean out the barn” in Sacramento as Trump promised to “drain the swamp” in Washington, D.C. Cox has taken a hard line on immigration — including supporting construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and ending “sanctuary state” policies — though he has also said he is against separating children from their parents at the border.

In other statewide races, two Democrats are battling to be lieutenant governor. Businesswoman and former U. S. Ambassador to Hungary Eleni Kounalakis is facing off against state Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina. Kounalakis has a comfortable 14-point lead in the Berkeley IGS poll, though both are running on platforms aimed at providing affordable healthcare and education and say they will stop sexual harassment in Sacramento and beyond. Kounalakis has the endorsement of the state’s U.S. senators, while Hernandez is backed by Secretary of State Alex Padilla and Controller Betty Yee and has more union support.

Padilla, a Democrat, is hoping to fend off a challenge by Republican Mark Meuser to keep his own seat as secretary of state. Padilla points to his record in expanding access for voters and warns this is a critical time for voting rights, while Meuser says voter rolls are bloated and he will clean them up.

Republican Konstantinos Roditis is hoping to unseat Yee, a Democrat, as state controller. Yee cites her success as a fiscal watchdog, while Roditis says he will curb taxes through audits.

Attorney General Xavier Becerra, meanwhile, is facing a challenge from Steven Bailey, a retired judge, in his bid to retain the office. Becerra, a Democrat, previously served 12 terms as a congressman and in his current role has pushed back hard against the Trump administration on health care, immigration and net neutrality, among other issues. Bailey, who was a criminal defense lawyer before being elected to a judgeship, has run on a platform of reversing laws that downgrade non-violent crimes to misdemeanors and eliminate money bail and enforcing rather than challenging federal immigration laws.

Democrat Fiona Ma, a member of the state Board of Equalization, and Republican businessman Greg Conlon are vying for the post of treasurer. Both are certified public accountants. Ma has a longer record of public service, including a term in the Assembly and a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, while Conlon once chaired the Public Utilities Commission.

Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, is up against Steve Poizner in a tight race for state insurance commissioner. Poizner, who held the job from 2007-2011, switched his registration from Republican to no party preference earlier this year and has a 5-point lead in the Berkeley IGS poll.

Santa Monica City Councilman Tony Vasquez, a Democrat, is vying for a seat on the State Board of Equalization. His opponent, G. Rick Marshall, is a Republican and tech consultant.

There is also a tough and heavily funded battle for superintendent of public instruction, a non-partisan role. Assemblyman Tony Thurmond, D-Richmond, is running against Marshall Tuck. Tuck ran former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s Partnership for Los Angeles Schools and also led Green Dot Public Schools, a charter school chain. Thurmond worked with at-risk youth as a social worker and spent 12 years working in public schools before being elected to the Richmond City Council and then winning two terms in the Assembly.

The failures of the state’s educational system have sparked heated debate between charter school advocates and teachers unions, and the race is seen by many as a proxy war between the two. Contributions have reached record proportions for the down-ballot seat, at more than $50 million, with a more than 2-1 advantage going to Tuck. The total includes more than $28 million raised by independent committees and wealthy backers of the charter schools movement on Tuck’s behalf and $8 million from the California Teachers Association for Thurmond.

Tuck defended the level of campaign spending to the Sacramento Bee, saying it’s required to reach the state’s more than 19 million registered voters.

Both candidates say they oppose for-profit charter schools, favor more funding for schools and are advocates of reform, including new academic standards.

One key point of contention is how to manage extra dollars allocated to districts with greater numbers of low-achieving students, who are often from low-income families or foster homes or learning English as a second language. Local districts have control over that money, which in some cases has been spent on teacher pay raises based on guidance from current State Superintendent Tom Torlakson. Tuck has promised to end that.

Thurmond is backed by Torlakson, teachers unions and the California Democratic Party. His many endorsements include Sen. Kamala Harris, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Los Angeles, and the Los Angeles Times. Tuck also boasts a long list of endorsements, including from Villaraigosa, former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan, former Obama education secretary Arne Duncan, ex-New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, the Los Angeles Daily News and Pasadena Star-News.

Tuck has a 12-point lead over Thurmond in the latest Berkeley IGS poll, with 48 to 36 of likely voters backing the respective candidates.

Regardless of who wins that superintendent’s race, the new governor will have the bulk of the authority to set the state’s education policy. Newsom has called for a moratorium on charter school expansion, although he has attracted backers from both camps.

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