Can a conservative break through for California’s attorney general?

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When California voters last elected a Republican to statewide office, Gavin Newsom was San Francisco’s young mayor, Mark Zuckerberg had just opened Facebook to non-college students, and Donald Trump was a tycoon. Democratic celebrities wrapping up the sixth season of “The Apprentice.”

It was 16 years ago.

Now, Newsom is the silver-haired governor running for his second term, Zuckerberg is an election-shaping, middle-age-pushing tech mogul, and Trump — well, you know all about him.

Much has changed in politics since 2006, but not the California Democratic Party’s unbeaten record for statewide office.

Republicans and conservative independents are hoping 2022 could finally be the year they break the winning streak. And they’re pinning their hopes on the race for California’s attorney general.

All that remains is to choose the right candidate for the post: a conservative without a party label? A self-proclaimed “pragmatic” Republican? Or a GOP candidate from the MAGA wing of the party?

“The momentum is there,” Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert told CalMatters reporters and editors this week. Democratic incumbent Rob Bonta’s top-funded challenger, she left the GOP in 2018 and will be on the ballot with “no party preference.”

“Public safety will transcend politics,” she said. “And now is the time for it to happen.”

It’s an optimistic line echoed by Nathan Hochman, a Los Angeles attorney and former federal prosecutor. Hochman is a Republican, but has so far resisted many specific political positions and instead emphasizes his long and varied resume and nonpartisan instincts.

Like Schubert, he predicts that, amid heightened public concern for security, voters “will look beyond the party.”

Although Eric Early – who has appealing views on “critical race theory”, gun control and COVID vaccine requirements – acknowledges that running against an incumbent Democrat in California is “always difficult he is particularly optimistic this year.

“If you’re going to take a statewide job, at some point in California, where a non-Democrat might win, that’s the job of attorney general,” said Early, a Los Angeles attorney. who ran unsuccessfully for Attorney General in 2018 and for Congress in 2020.

Money, incumbent and voter registration statistics still favor Bonta to keep his job. But his opponents have a few advantages in 2022. There are high gas prices, rising inflation, Democratic President Joe Biden’s low endorsement count, and the election truism that the first mid-election term after the election of a new president is almost always a bust for the ruling party. Ask any Republican running in 2018.

These headwinds are blowing against all incumbent Democrats, but Bonta could be particularly vulnerable. Crime – and public anxiety about it – is on the rise. Political discontent over law and order is beginning to play out even in liberal strongholds such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, where District Attorneys Chesa Boudin and George Gascón face possible recalls. Bonta, a nine-year-old state legislator from Alameda who was nominated to the post by Newsom in 2021, has never run for a statewide post and so may lack a broad name recognition.

Three ways to face Bonta

Schubert, Hochman and Early represent different approaches to how to unseat a sitting Democrat in California.

Hochman’s theory of the case hinges on the known, if unpopular, brand of the Republican Party in California, as well as its credibility in law and order. “When voters look at the ballot, they’ll see ‘party preference: Republican.’ And I believe that when it comes to safety and security, it’s not a negative,” he said.

So far, Hochman has also gone out of his way to sidestep some of the controversies that could alienate otherwise left-leaning voters.

Early makes an even more confident argument about the GOP appeal this year. He predicts that concern over crime will not only persuade the state’s Democratic-leaning voters to shrug off the party tag for California attorney general, but embrace some of the more conservative tenets of the state. left. “I think being a Republican might actually help.”

Neither Republican was particularly impressed with Schubert’s strategy of running without party preference. “What does that actually mean?” Hochman asked in his interview with CalMatters reporters.

Early was more blunt: “Independents always reserve the right to shift positions back and forth…I don’t think that’s fair to voters, frankly.”

But Schubert’s platform has been consistent so far. His campaign platform may be just as “tough on crime” as Hochman’s, if not more so. But avoiding a party label, she positions herself as a professional prosecutor outside the partisan fray. His campaign is also a test of whether center-right politicians can fly in California if they are cut off from the unpopular partisan label that so often accompanies them.

Schubert is not the first former Republican to try his hand at state office as an independent. In 2014, Dan Schnur, after a long career serving Republicans including former Governor Pete Wilson and the late Arizona Senator John McCain, ran for Secretary of State with no “party preference.” . He got less than 10% of the votes.

Four years later, Steve Poizner, the former Republican insurance commissioner, ran for his old job — only without the “R” next to his name. He fared slightly better, but despite spending more than $1.5 million of his own money, he lost to current commissioner, Democrat Ricardo Lara.

Schnur, now a professor at USC’s Annenberg School of Communications, said he was more optimistic about Schubert’s chances.

“Before I ran, I was told by smart people that an independent candidate would need two things to win a statewide race in California: an issue that people cared about deeply and an office that people cared about. ‘they understood,’ he said. “I didn’t have any of those things. Steve Poizner had one. Schubert can 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 of being elected statewide.

He rattles off some statistics: The last time a Republican was elected California’s attorney general was in 1994. The only time a political independent made it to the November election under either major primary system, it was Poizner, a millionaire who held the position. he was looking for. The last time an appointed attorney general ran for office was Xavier Becerra in 2018 and the Democrat beat Republican opponent Steven Bailey by 27 percentage points.

“There is simply no recent history in California suggesting that a Republican can win a statewide office and there is no history suggesting that any (independent) candidate has any advantage,” said said South. “I challenge anyone to explain to me how Anne Marie Schubert escapes these bare facts.”

“It’s Still California”

In a survey released this month by UC Berkeley’s Institute for Government Studies, 23% of registered voters named crime and public safety as their top concern. It was the third most popular choice after the cost of housing and homelessness. But the partisan split was telling: Crime was by far the top pick among GOP voters, with 39% of registered Republicans calling it their top issue. Among Democrats, he came in fifth, behind housing, homelessness, climate change and gas prices.

This partisan split mirrors a February poll from the Public Policy Institute of California, which found that Republican likely voters were nearly three times more likely than Democrats to say crime, gangs and drugs should be the top priority of the state government.

But even if public safety becomes a more mainstream and bipartisan concern, it’s not clear voters will dispel their uncertainty about California’s incumbent attorney general, said Dean Bonner, associate director of the investigation at the institute.

“That’s the first link that needs to be made: he’s an incumbent and that person’s job is related to the crime,” he said. “I 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 time again — vote Democrat. That’s compared to 24% who are Republicans. It creates a “real conundrum” for right-of-center candidates who need both the GOP base and a majority of independents to defeat the power of the overwhelmingly unified Democratic electoral bloc, said consultant Mike Madrid. Republican politician and vocal critic of the GOP’s embrace of Donald Trump.

“Can this be done? It can absolutely be done. Has this already been done? No,” Madrid said. “Bonta is particularly vulnerable at this point, but it’s still California.”

CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media company explaining California policies and politics.

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