California’s closely watched primary race for attorney general faded into a standard partisan contest after polls closed Tuesday, giving the Democratic incumbent Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta an easy victory for the top spot on the Nov. 8 ballot to likely face one of two Republicans instead of a high-profile independent prosecutor.
By Wednesday morning, Bonta easily led the field of five candidates. A former state lawmaker whom Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed to the post last year, Bonta has been heavily criticized by his opponents for his left-leaning legislative record and his support for criminal justice reform laws that aim to cut California’s prison population through an expansion of rehabilitative programs.
Despite those efforts, Bonta was expected to easily advance out of the state’s top-two primary, given his party’s vote registration advantage and the more than $5 million he’s raised for his campaign.
Bonta’s strong showing provided a counterpoint to criticism of the criminal justice reform movement in California, concerns that helped oust liberal San Francisco Dist. Atti. Chesa Boudin in a bitter recall election propelled by concerns over the city’s crime and homelessness issues. Bonta is one of the most left-leaning candidates on the statewide ballot but is expected to emerge from the primary in a strong position to keep his job in November.
Bonta has rejected accusations that he hasn’t prioritized crime prevention, ramping up efforts in his office to crack down on retail theft and illegal gun ownership.
“As attorney general, I wake up every day and go to work to protect public safety and defend Californians’ rights,” Bonta said in a statement.
California’s attorney general is also charged with defending state laws, including strict gun regulations and access to abortion services. The two issues have become even more important in recent weeks. Democrats have pledged to pass more sweeping gun control legislation after the May 24 mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, that left 19 students and two adults dead, and expand abortion access after a leaked US Supreme Court draft opinion signaled the likely end of abortion protections guaranteed by the ruling in Roe vs. Wade.
“No Department of Justice in the country is doing more to stand up to right-wing attacks against our constitutional and legal rights — from defending abortion protections and the right to privacy to strengthening our gun safety laws,” Bonta said.
In a recent UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Times, Bonta was well ahead of his four opponents, with 46% of likely voters saying they supported him. The real question in Tuesday’s primary was which of the attorney general’s three main contenders would secure the second spot to compete against him in November.
Eric Early, a Los Angeles attorney running a more politically far-right campaign, was one of two GOP candidates vying to make the general election this fall, along with former Assistant US Atty. Gen. Nathan Hochman, who was endorsed by the California Republican Party.
A much harder road to success faced Sacramento Dist. Atti. Anne Marie Schubert, who left the GOP in 2018 and launched her bid for attorney general as a “no party preference” candidate. Schubert had hoped her relatively centrist politics and experience prosecuting the Golden State Killer and other notorious serial murderers and rapists would convince voters that she could effectively lead the state Department of Justice. But in the Berkeley-Times poll, only 6% of likely voters said they supported Schubert.
“There’s still lots of votes to count, but obviously it’s an uphill battle,” Schubert said in an interview with The Times. “I feel very, very proud of the campaign we ran and I feel very good about the authenticity of who I am as a person and why we did this. I hope that whoever becomes attorney general never loses sight of the human toll of crime.”
Bonta’s supporters have in recent weeks produced radio ads to elevate Early’s candidacy, with the idea that facing a more conservative candidate in November would be easier than running against more moderate challengers like Schubert and Hochman. The strategy underscored how candidates can use the top-two primary system to almost hand-select their opponents.
But it’s clear how that effort paid off. Hochman on Wednesday was modestly ahead of Early in returns for the second spot on the November ballot. Schubert was trailing the two Republicans for a distant fourth place.
California voters also weighed in Tuesday on a list of other statewide primary races.
Lanhee Chen, a candidate for state controller, was the GOP’s best chance at winning a statewide office. As the only Republican in the race, the fiscal advisor and educator was favored to come out on top Tuesday against four Democrats and one independent. Yvonne Yiu, a member of the Monterey Park City Council, had an advantage over other Democrats heading into the primary with more campaign money to spend. But fellow Democrat Malia Cohen was ahead of Yiu on Wednesday.
In the race for California insurance commissioner, incumbent Ricardo Lara fought to secure the top spot in the Nov. 8 election after several high-profile controversies during his first term and a fierce challenge from fellow Democrat Marc Levine, an Assembly member from Greenbrae.
Lara faced eight opponents, including Greg Conlon, a Republican businessman and former California Public Utilities Commission president. The insurance commissioner is California’s top regulator of home, auto and other insurance policies purchased by millions of consumers, with the ability to approve or reject rate increases and investigate fraud.
Supt. of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond could emerge as the only statewide candidate to fully secure another four years in office after an uneventful primary campaign against several challengers. Unlike other state offices, superintendent candidates can win the job in the primary with a majority of the vote. George Yang trailed a distant second Wednesday morning.
Thurmond’s success would come after a trying first term that included COVID-19 school shutdowns and workplace problems, but he secured crucial endorsements from Democratic Party leaders and the California Teachers Assn.
Other incumbent Democrats such as Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, Secretary of State Shirley Weber and Treasurer Fiona Ma easily advanced to the fall election.
Times staff writers Taryn Luna, Melody Gutierrez and Mackenzie Mays contributed to this report.