The fundraising for California’s June 5 primary is well along, the political debates have begun and the first nasty hit pieces are already showing up on the Internet. But voters might want to be wary before making any nonrefundable election bets.
History shows there’s always plenty of early jockeying for political position and that the early contenders in California contests aren’t always the ones who end up on the primary ballot.
“You really don’t know until March 9 how much of this is just hot air,” Garry South, a Democratic consultant who has run a number of statewide races, said of the filing deadline.
On Jan. 18, for example, Democrat Asif Mahmood, a Los Angeles physician, announced he was pulling out of the race for lieutenant governor, despite having raised more than $1 million for the contest. Instead, the first-time candidate says he plans to run for state insurance commissioner, a seat left open because current Commissioner Dave Jones is termed out — and running for attorney general.
On the GOP side, Doug Ose, a former Sacramento-area congressman, said earlier this month that he’s now a candidate for governor, ignoring a pair of Republicans who have been in that race for months.
Last week, Vivek Viswanathan, a 30-year-old Democrat who worked as a policy adviser on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and as a special adviser in Gov. Jerry Brown’s office, said he is running for state treasurer, where he will challenge Fiona Ma, a state Board of Equalization member and former San Francisco supervisor.
Mahmood said the change was an easy call.
“I want to help California succeed … and I think the best fit is serving as insurance commissioner,” he said, citing his years of experience in dealing with insurance companies in his medical practice. “My experience is better than anyone who has ever run for the office.”
Mahmood denied that political considerations played any part in his decision, even though he would have been facing three other well-financed candidates in the lieutenant governor’s race, with only the top two finishers advancing to the Nov. 6 general election.
It’s not unusual for politicians to toss out that standard denial, since no one wants to say they’re not running because they can’t win, South said.
“If you come from nowhere and no one knows who you are, it makes sense to move to what you think is more attractive terrain,” he added.
That doesn’t mean a political shift can’t be a surprise — not just to the voters, but also to the candidate’s campaign team.
In 2009, for example, then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom announced he was running for governor and even collected an endorsement from former President Bill Clinton. But in October, he dropped out of the race.
“With a young family and responsibilities at City Hall, I have found it impossible to commit the time required to complete this effort the way it needs to — and should be — done,” he said, not mentioning that the daunting prospect of running against attorney general — and former governor — Jerry Brown made his run for governor the longest of long shots.
But by February 2010, he had taken out papers to run for lieutenant governor, even though South, his consultant in Newsom’s now-ignored governor’s race, had told The Chronicle he would have Newsom “kidnapped by one-eyed aliens from the planet Pluto before he would make that decision” to run for lieutenant governor.
Newsom won, was re-elected in 2014 and is now the front-runner in the governor’s race, so it was a good call.
So was then-Board of Equalization member John Chiang’s 2006 decision to drop his plan to run for state treasurer when then-Attorney General Bill Lockyer got in the race and instead join the state controller contest. Both Lockyer and Chiang won, and Chiang, now the state treasurer, is also a 2018 candidate for governor.
It doesn’t always turn out so well, though.
In 1994, termed-out state Controller Gray Davis joined the lieutenant governor’s race, facing state Democratic Party Chairman Phil Angelides. With polls showing him in trouble against Davis, Angelides moved to the treasurer’s race, where he won the primary but lost the November election to Republican Matt Fong.
With the state filing deadline about six weeks away, there’s still plenty of time for changes in the primary lineup, with some candidates switching races, others getting in and a few, like incumbent GOP Reps. Ed Royce of Orange County and Darrell Issa of San Diego County, getting out of politics altogether — at least for now.
“People have to remember, (candidates) can do anything until they file their campaign papers,” South said.