On Sunday evening Gavin Newsom and Brian Dahle took to the debate stage. They debated abortion, climate change, the price of gas, the death penalty, drug policy, taxes, homelessness, and a raft of other big-policy issues. Yet, at the end of the day, it was entirely anticlimactic, simply because no one is paying any attention to the governor’s race. Most of my readers will likely be thinking, Brian who?
Dahle is a conservative state senator from Lassen County, in the rural far north of California. He’s also the GOP nominee to be the Golden State’s next governor. But I have to admit that until a couple months ago, I hadn’t heard of him. When I gave my journalism students at UC Davis a current affairs test earlier this week—a day after the debate—not a single one of them could name the GOP candidate for governor. Even in the California newspapers, you have to look long and hard to find articles about either Dahle or the governor’s race. As the Los Angeles Times pithily put it, “The match-up marked one of the few times Newsom has acknowledged his opponent’s existence since the contest began.”
Which is weird, if you think about it, given that California is the most populous, wealthiest state in the country and that the person who ends up winning in two weeks will be in charge of stewarding the world’s fifth-largest economy and setting priorities for a near-$300 billion budget. But then again, a mere year after a recall election in which Newsom secured well over 60 percent of the vote, why would anyone—including the incumbent governor himself—pay close attention to another race that Newsom is almost certain to win by something close to a two-to-one margin?
What interests pundits, and probably Newsom too, far more than the Newsom-Dahle contest is how successfully the governor—who has been in attack mode on everything from reproductive rights to free speech, from voting rights to climate change policy—will project himself onto the national stage over the coming weeks and months. If Biden decides not to run for reelection in 2024—and I sincerely hope that the octogenarian president realizes he’s not the man for the moment two years from now—Newsom will be among the front-runners for the Democratic party’s nomination.
Sunday’s debate, seen in that context, wasn’t really a nail-biter with California’s political future on the line; it was an audition for a national role. If those were the criteria, Newsom did just fine. He might not ultimately get the part, but he’ll at least be called back for a second reading.
In debates elsewhere, the Democrats have made two potentially catastrophic errors in recent weeks. In Arizona, gubernatorial candidate Katie Hobbs—whose campaign offices were burglarized this week in what could yet emerge as a serious political scandal—clearly should have faced her opponent, Kari Lake, instead of ceding the high ground by sitting out the debate, ostensibly to avoid getting sucked into Lake’s food-fight vision of politics. Undecided voters I talked to in Arizona last week told me they had nothing to compare-and-contrast the two candidates on as a result of Hobbs’s dodge-and-weave. Given the extremism of Lake’s positions, that’s an ominous sign of what could be about to befall Arizona politics. If the polls are right and Lake wins, she will become a lodestar for the far right in America, and—with her Trump-like arena politics—a serious contender for national office in 2024 or 2028.
In Pennsylvania, by contrast, Senate candidate John Fetterman clearly should not have agreed to debate Mehmet Oz, given his ongoing auditory processing issues in the wake of his stroke. The debate format, with the need for rapid-fire responses, is probably the worst format in the world for someone with Fetterman’s health challenges. Had he sat the debate out and said, instead, that he would do an hour-long interview with the debate hosts, Pennsylvania’s voters would likely have given him the benefit of the doubt. But his stumbling through a mano-a-mano debate with Oz was simply disastrous. I suspect that, in the history of American political debates, it will rank up there with Nixon’s notorious five-o’clock shadow.
Hobbs’s inexplicable absence from the debate stage has provided endless fodder to Lake’s campaign, and has certainly done the Democrat no favors with undecided voters. Fetterman’s halting debate performance has shifted attention away from Oz’s extreme policies and firmly onto whether Fetterman would be competent to represent Pennsylvania in the US Senate. Democrats are crying foul that the GOP is running attack ads focusing on Fetterman’s verbal gaffes. But, let’s be honest, had the shoe been on the other foot, Democratic spinmeisters would now be doing the exact same thing. With so many political races on a knife edge, and with so much hanging on these results, such self-inflicted wounds by the Democrats are, to my mind, sheer political malpractice.
Given the quality and the noxious beliefs of the two GOP candidates, the races in Arizona and Pennsylvania should have broken heavily for the Democrats weeks ago; after all, on the big issues, including abortion, a solid majority of voters in both states reject the extremist positions of the GOP candidates. Instead, if Hobbs and Fetterman win—which is now by no means a given—the races will be squeakers.
Similar down-to-the-wire contests are apparent throughout much of the west. Nevada’s gubernatorial and Senate elections are both essentially statistical dead heats, as is the bizarre race for governor in Oregon, where a spoiler candidate risks handing political power to the Republicans in what is normally a deep-blue state—though in Oregon, as more attention has been focused on this possibility over the past couple of weeks, the third candidate’s support has begun declining. The latest FiveThirtyEight polling averages, as of Thursday of this week, show the GOP and Democratic candidates each with 39.1 percent support. If I had to guess, I’d say Democrat Tina Kotek is now on a trajectory to secure a narrow victory.
There are 11 days left until the midterms. With so many elections looking likely to be decided by fractions of a percent in this near-evenly divided country, progressives need to engage in an almighty push to the finish line. The prospect for Democrats to blow wide open the races in places like Arizona are long gone. Now, the best hope is a huge and all-hands-on-deck voter mobilization effort in the final days of the campaign.