California’s closely watched primary race for attorney general turned into a standard partisan contest on Tuesday, yielding Democratic incumbent Atty. Geb. Rob Bonta an easy first-place win in the Nov. 8 ballot to likely face one of two Republicans instead of a top independent prosecutor.
Bonta easily led the five-candidate field in early returns after California polls closed. A former state legislator whom Governor Gavin Newsom appointed to the post last year, Bonta has come under heavy criticism from opponents for his left-wing legislative record and support for criminal justice reform laws that seek to reduce California’s prison population through an expansion of rehabilitation programs.
Despite these efforts, Bonta was expected to easily exit the state’s first two primaries, given his party’s advantage in voter registration and the more than $5 million he raised for his campaign. He dismissed accusations that he failed to prioritize crime prevention, stepping up his office’s efforts to crack down on retail theft and illegal gun possession.
In a recent poll by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Times, Bonta was well ahead of his four opponents, with 46% of likely voters saying they support him. The real question in Tuesday’s primary was which of the three leading attorney general contenders would get second place to run against him in November.
Eric Early, a Los Angeles attorney who runs a more politically far-right campaign, was one of two GOP candidates vying for the general election this fall, along with former US aide Atty. Gen. Nathan Hochman, who was endorsed by the California Republican Party.
A much tougher 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 that her relatively centrist politics and experience in prosecuting the Golden State Killer and other notorious serial murderers and rapists would convince voters that she could effectively lead the state’s Department of Justice. But in the Berkeley-Times poll, only 6% of likely voters said they supported Schubert.
Bonta supporters have produced radio ads in recent weeks elevating 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 highlighted how candidates can use the system of first two primaries to select their opponents almost manually.
But it’s unclear how that effort paid off on Tuesday. Hochman was slightly ahead of the early comebacks for second place in the November ballot. Schubert trailed both Republicans for a distant fourth place.
California voters also weighed in on a list of other statewide primary races on Tuesday.
Lanhee Chen, a candidate for state comptroller, was the GOP’s best chance of winning a statewide post. As the only Republican in the race, the tax adviser and educator was favored to come out on top Tuesday against four Democrats and an independent. Monterey Park City Council member Yvonne Yiu had an edge over other Democrats heading into the primary with more campaign money to spend. But fellow Democrat Malia Cohen was ahead of Yiu in early returns.
In the race for California Insurance Commissioner, incumbent Ricardo Lara battled to secure the top spot in the Nov. 8 election after several high-profile controversies during his first term and a fierce challenge from his fellow Democrat Marc Levine, Assemblyman for Greenbrae.
Lara faced eight opponents, including Greg Conlon, a Republican businessman and former chairman of the California Public Utilities Commission. The Insurance Commissioner is California’s primary 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 become the only statewide candidate to get a full four more years in office on Tuesday after an uneventful primary campaign against multiple challengers. Unlike other state offices, superintendent candidates can win the office in the primary with a majority of votes.
Thurmond’s success would come after a trying first term that included COVID-19 school closures and workplace issues, but he won crucial endorsements from leaders of the Democratic Party and the California Teachers Assn.
Other incumbent Democrats such as Lt. Governor Eleni Kounalakis, Secretary of State Shirley Weber and Treasurer Fiona Ma easily qualified for the fall elections.
Times writers Taryn Luna, Melody Gutierrez and Mackenzie Mays contributed to this report.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.