The two men competing to be the next governor of California met earlier this week for their first (and, alas, probably only) one-on-one debate.
If you didn’t see it, that’s because the showdown—which was structured more as a spirited conversation than your standard dueling-podiums-style debate—was on the radio, hosted by political reporter Scott Shafer, out of the San Francisco-based station KQED.
And if you didn’t hear it, that’s because it was on a Monday. At 10 a.m. On a federal holiday.
It’s a low-profile treatment for what may be the sole in-person exchange of ideas between the two candidates vying to become the next leader of the fifth-largest economy on Earth. But then again, few voters will have a difficult time distinguishing Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a liberal Democrat and former mayor of San Francisco, from John Cox, a conservative Republican with the backing of President Trump.
On housing, both candidates agreed that a shortage of production was to blame, but they offered very different solutions. Newsom argued that local governments often exert too much influence blocking production: “There’s a certain point where the state of California needs to intervene.” Cox disagreed, arguing that the focus needs to be on reducing the cost of adding new units by cutting state environmental regulations.
The debate over housing quickly turned feisty as Newsom pointed to his proposed solutions, including boosting the state’s low-income housing tax credit and allowing local governments to skim property-tax revenue for affordable housing. He then said that Cox offers only ”an illusory strategy where he criticizes and identifies problems” but offers no substantive fixes.
Cox countered that all of Newsom’s solutions rely on “more government.”
Despite Cox’s best efforts to keep the conversation focused on bread-and-butter economic issues and his history of “fighting against the establishment,” Shafer asked about his views on gay marriage. In 2007, Cox said that allowing same-sex couples to marry would “open the floodgates to polygamy and bestiality.”
“I’ve evolved on those issues … just like Barack Obama,” said Cox.
When asked about gun control, the candidate criticized the shift in the conversation toward “guns and all of these social issues,” arguing that he is not running for governor to change state law on those topics, but is instead focused on affordability.
Cox was happy to talk about Proposition 6, the ballot measure that would repeal the recent increase in the state gas tax and other driver fees, which he has made a crux of his campaign. Cox argued that the state’s Democratic leadership “didn’t want to do the tough job” of eliminating wasteful spending and cutting environmental regulations, so it instead raised taxes and fees. He insisted that under his leadership, the state would be able to fund necessary road repairs without the new revenue.
“We’re going to use the money efficiently and cut good deals with contractors,” he said.
Newsom once again called that plan “illusory.”
“His plan is to make things worse,” said Newsom. “You can eliminate every single position at Caltrans (the state transportation agency) … and still struggle to find the money.”
Likewise, Newsom seized the opportunity to turn the discussion of the state’s sanctuary policy, which limits local and state law-enforcement agencies’ cooperation with federal immigration authorities, into an opportunity to paint Cox as President Trump’s acolyte.
“He believes very passionately in building the wal. He believes in the elimination of sanctuary policy,” said Newsom. “Trump would have an advocate in Sacramento if he becomes the next governor.”
Cox ignored the reference to the president but said he would indeed push for a repeal of California’s sanctuary state law. “If somebody is here illegally, and they’re engaged in criminal activities, I think it’s up to public officials to kick them out,” he said.
Similarly, the two candidates also offered different views on the state’s recent criminal-justice reforms, including the recent elimination of cash bail.
“You’re replacing a private business with a lot more state workers,” said Cox, whereas Newsom called the new law “an extraordinary step forward and a civil-rights reform.”
While Newsom celebrated the state’s climate change policy, saying the state should play a “role not just nationally but internationally to lead,” Cox was more circumspect. He agreed that the planet was warming and that human activity “may very well” be partially to blame, but he questioned whether the benefit of dramatically cutting emissions across the state was worth the cost to electricity ratepayers and drivers.
The fact this year’s governor’s race will likely feature just one debate during the general election (there were a few before the June primary) is unusual by historical standards, but it likely represents the new normal. As the Los Angeles Times reported, no race for governor or U.S. Senate has featured more than one post-primary debate since 2012. That may be a consequence of the growing political polarization of the state.
“I think there’s a growing cynicism about the utility of debates, Cal State Sacramento political scientist Kimberly Nalder told the Times.
Cox’s strategy during the debate mirrored the one he has employed for months on the campaign trail. He has tried to saddle Newsom with responsibility for California’s high gas taxes, high poverty rate, housing costs and every other economic woe facing the state. As a social conservative who opposes abortion, Cox has largely steered clear of those issues.
“This campaign is about change versus status quo,” he said. “Gavin has been part of the political class that has led this state downward.”
There’s a poetic irony in the claim that Newsom should be held responsible for so many of the state’s problems, given he has occasionally griped that the post of lieutenant governor offers little in the way of actual responsibility. But as a Bay Area Democrat, Newsom certainly represents more of a continuation of current policy than Cox.
For his part, Newsom also took a familiar tact in the debate, arguing that Cox was “in lockstep with Trump and Trumpism.” To hear Newsom tell it, Cox is the president’s Midwestern alter ego: a millionaire outsider with no political experience and ideas that are both unrealistic and unacceptable to most Californians.
In short, Cox hopes the election will be a referendum on the current political direction of the state, while Newsom wants every voter to have President Trump at front of mind as they fill in their ballot.
According to a recent poll from the Public Policy Institute of California, Newsom’s strategy appears more likely to succeed—and not just because he’s a Democrat in a blue state. Among likely voters, 61 percent disapprove of the way the Trump is handling the job. Meanwhile, by a slim 50-47 margin, more voters than not believe that California is headed in the right direction.
As the front-runner in a blue state, Newsom could be seen to have little to gain from more frequent, visible debates. In the newest Target Book Insider Track Survey, which asks consultants, lobbyists and other political players in California politics from both sides of the aisle, 37 percent of respondents said Newsom shouldn’t bother with debates because there’s no upside for him—only the risk of a downside. But 63 percent said he should debate, either because it would be a needed endorsement of the American political process (30 percent), or politically smart (8 percent), or both (25 percent).
For more on John Cox and Gavin Newsom—including video interviews and an ability to create a side-by-side comparison of the issues—explore the CALmatters voter guide. CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.