Election 2018: John Cox, Gavin Newsom Disagree About Almost Everything at Their Only Debate

The two men competing to be the next governor of California met for their first (and, alas, probably only) one-on-one stand-off.

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 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 10am.

On a federal holiday.

It’s a low-profile treatment for what may be the sole opportunity many voters have to evaluate 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 a number of 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, and said that his opponent, 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 towards “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 only too 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 cut environmental regulations and raised taxes and fees instead. 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 worst,” he said . “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 wall, 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 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.”

And 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.

That this year’s governor’s race will only feature one debate during the general election (there was a handful before the June primary) is unusual by historical standards. But it likely represents the new normal. As the Los Angeles Times reported Sunday, 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 mirrors 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, it’s 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 that Newsom should be held responsible for so many of the state’s problems, given that 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 tack in the debate this morning, 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-to-47 margin, more voters than not believe that California is headed in the right direction.

As the frontrunner 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.

To dive deeper into the details about John Cox and Gavin Newsom—including video interviews and an ability to create a side-by-side comparison of both on the issues you care about—explore the CALmatters voter guideCALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.


  1. The positions Mr. Cox espouses fuel the ‘dragon energy’ and vitality of our Golden State, while Mr. Newsom’s skewed perception of the criminal element —as in his support of a cash-free bail and his attempt to superimpose the religious ethic of ‘sanctuary’ on the justice system— is making us all less safe.

  2. Mr. Newsom, why are you denying California more debates with Mr. Cox? What are you hiding from? Are you worried Californians will like Mr. Cox better? Are his plans wiser/ more efficient for a better California? You ruined San Francisco, so now you continue the road of destruction with California. You are not my governor. A fair debate means more than one or two, it means a few debates are on order before election. You are denying our right as citizens to a fair debate between you and Mr. Cox. You must be afraid that he will win the race, this is why you are denying him! Just on this action alone Mr. Newsom, my vote goes to Mr. Cox for governor. As usual, the left denying freedom of speech to the right.

  3. Newsom will be the final cancer that will doom the entire state. Failed liberal soft on crime policies have made the city of a San Jose an absolute sewer. Anyone who denies this has their eyes closed.The apathetic CA voter will keep doing what they have always done, make poor decisions at the ballot box.

  4. OMG a Republican in a race for governor of Kalifornia, who would have guessed Democrats could drown this state in enough red ink to bring a second party into an election in a one party state.

    Obviously DMV has been infiltrated by Russian hackers who haven’t allowed enough illegal aliens to vote.

  5. By all accounts California is facing practicaly insurmountable problems.

    Why should that be? We have the best tech industry, we have a well educated workforce, and in fact, we have all the necessary assets and tools to fix the problems and make life better for everyone. But instead, the problems keep getting worse.

    Here’s the central problem: by hook and by crook, one political Party has incrementally taken total power, to the extent that now the voters’ “choice” is two candidates from the SAME Party! And that Party has a ⅔ majority, which means it can pass any legislation it wants to – and that is exactly what it has done. But the legislation only benefits special interest groups, rather than the majority.

    Therefore, every problem that the state can fix, and every problem that the state has made worse, must be laid at the feet of that Uni-Party. The problems are entirely their doing, and their fault.

    Ask yourself: are we better off now than we were 50 years ago? Thirty years ago? Or even 20 years ago?

    No. Taxes are much higher, but our roads and bridges are deteriorating fast. The same thing is happening just about everywhere we look, despite the rising flood of tax revenue.

    Rather than do what they were elected to do – run the state efficiently for the benefit of the majority – the current electeds cater to small special interest groups, and divert a large amount of the state tax revenues to them.

    Foir example, state bureaucrats were promised outrageously high pensions in return for their election support. They got their pensions, and the electeds got elected. What did the average taxpayer get?

    Some of those electeds have even retired by now, leaving the taxpayers holding the bag. We will have to pay for their promises for decades.

    We’re the chumps, both coming and going: we got nothing out of that deal, except a huge tax liability.

    To pay for those pensions Gov. Brown schemed with the Legislature to halt any significant road and bridge maintenance for the past six years, despite the state collecting $36 Billion for that very purpose.

    With no maintenance, the Legislature can now come to the voters again, begging for even more money to “fix our decaying infrastructure.” But why, since there’s $36 Billion just sitting there, waiting to be spent on repairs?

    The answer demonstrates the government’s deception: the money for repairs is there – but the money to pay the promised state pensions isn’t. So the Governor and the One-Party Legislature are using this deceptive scam to fund state pensions.

    The same thing is being done on a smaller scale with myriad special interest groups, which get taxpayer monies in return for their votes. And in almost every case those groups pay far less in taxes (if they pay anything at all), than they receive.

    To say we are being cheated is an understatement. If any company or individual did something similar, the corporate officers or the scamsters would be spending many years in the state penitentiary, and rightly so.

    But as long as the voters keep re-electing what amounts to a criminal class, nothing will change.

    Finally, the media is also culpable. They have become the electeds’ bootlicks. Where are their editorials DEMANDING a series of debates between the candidates? Not just for Governor, but for every elective office?

    Instead, what we see is a tame media that rolls over for the status quo, happy to have their bellies scratched by the criminal political class.

    Who does the media represent, anyway? The People? Or is the media the electeds’ new sycophant class? The answer can’t be both.

    • > The same thing is being done on a smaller scale with myriad special interest groups, which get taxpayer monies in return for their votes. And in almost every case those groups pay far less in taxes (if they pay anything at all), than they receive.

      Yes. It’s called “democracy”.

      It’s the reason that Winston Churchill called democracy “the worst form of government . . . except for all the others.”

      I suspect that Churchill didn’t complete his survey of all the other forms of government. There’s GOT to be something better Gavin Newsom.

      Even the Tibetan system sounds better: when a governor dies in office, just make the next baby born governor.

  6. No brainer here. The Dems have owned this state for years and things only get worse. It’s time to wise up voter class and try something different. Cox for Governor.

  7. WOW. These comments are right on. We need change, we need honest change. The bullet train is bankrupt, never made any sense, we are paying higher gas taxes in the nation with the worst roads, included in prop 6 is higher DMV fees. Most of that money is going to public transportation and not for rebuilding our infrastructure. Our government in California is spend spend spend. We need to change the downward spiral. San Francisco just hired a pooper scooper because of human waste on the streets. Why, because of Newsomes free needle exchange whereby there is no exchange at all which the used needles are left on the streets. The Sanctury state makes no sense. We in California attract the homeless, free health care, great climate, free needles, sanctuary status, and who is footing the bill. YOU WHO ARE GAINFULLY EMPLOYED. VOTE NO ON NEWSOME AND PROP 6

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