Opinion: ‘Pick your opponent’ ploy fails Bonta

It was a ploy, much like one first used in the modern era of California politics by the late Democratic U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston in his 1986 reelection bid. The tactic worked that time.


But radio ads that hit California airwaves in large quantities during May, as the primary election approached, did not work this spring.


The ads touted the state attorney general candidacy of previously little known Republican candidate Eric Early, the most conservative hopeful in the running and an unapologetic supporter of ex-President Donald Trump.


They were funded primarily by a pro-labor political action committee whose desire was to create as easy a path to election as possible for the appointed Democratic incumbent Rob Bonta, by far the most liberal candidate in the field.


Bonta backers did not want his November opponent to be the most credible Republican in the field, former prosecutor Nathan Hochman, a party-backed hopeful who pledges to be tougher on criminals than Bonta — a longtime supporter of the “no-cash-bail” system overwhelmingly nixed by voters in 2020.


Bonta has also threatened numerous cities with costly lawsuits if they don’t knuckle under by OKing large amounts of new housing construction as called for by the state Department of Housing and Community Development, whose figures have been labeled unreliable by the state’s nonpartisan auditor.


The radio ad sponsors plain hope was that California’s top two “jungle primary” would give Bonta an opponent far less electable than Hochman might turn out to be. But Hochman holds a significant edge over Early with most votes counted. The final count might not be known for weeks, but Hochman is Bonta’s apparent November opponent.


As an incumbent in a state where no Democratic statewide officeholder has lost a reelection bid since the 1980s, there was never much doubt Bonta would win the primary. But one nuance of top two is that even with a clear Bonta majority in the primary, he still would need to run again in November against the No. 2 finisher.


Knowing this, Bonta’s supporters wanted to split the Republican vote between Early and Hochman and allow no-party-preference candidate Anne Marie Schubert, the Sacramento County district attorney, to sneak into the fall runoff. That didn’t happen, as Hochman took second place and Early third, both far ahead of Schubert.


Bonta backers figured Hochman could be tougher for Bonta to beat because he had major party backing, while Schubert was strictly on her own and Early would be hurt by strong anti-Trump feeling in California.


The system is significantly different today than in the pre-top two days when Cranston, feeling threatened by the moderate Republican Silicon Valley Congressman Ed Zschau, encouraged backers to donate more than $100,000 to American Independent Party candidate Edward Vallen, who used it mostly for radio ads strikingly similar to this spring’s ads touting Early. They essentially said Zschau was dishonest, claiming Vallen and Cranston were the only candidates in the race with integrity.


Cranston eventually won reelection by just 104,000 votes, while Vallen pulled 109,000, including many that figured to go to Zschau if the ultra-conservative Vallen had not been a factor, albeit a minor one.


The ploy infuriated Republicans at the time, but it worked for Cranston, very likely responsible for the last of the four terms he served before Democrat Barbara Boxer won his old seat in 1992.


The odds are that even though this ploy did not work for Bonta, he will easily win election in his own right this fall. That’s because Democrats outnumber Republicans almost 2-1 on the rolls of registered California voters, and no statewide GOP candidate except the movie muscleman Arnold Schwarzenegger has been able to overcome that deficit since it began to appear in the 1990s.


No one else had used the “boost your opponent” playbook to a significant extent in a statewide race in the 36 years that passed since Cranston did it. But modern PACs and their sometimes hidden donors are well situated to repeat it, even if that displeases or offends some voters.


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Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. His book, “The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It” is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net.