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Don’t be fooled by these political dirty tricks

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom is running for governor.
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom is running for governor. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

This is an election year, which means it’s open season for political tricksters.

These tricksters are highly paid political consultants who specialize in dreaming up ways to lure voters into doing something they wouldn’t otherwise be likely to do.

This year’s most obvious bit of political gamesmanship is exploiting the state’s top-two primary system to freeze out some candidates. Under the system, the top-two finishers in the June primary for statewide, legislative and congressional offices face each other in November, regardless of party.

Democrats are so eager to repudiate President Donald Trump and punish Republican congressional members that candidates have lined up to challenge GOP incumbents in districts that voted against Trump in 2016.

The proliferation of candidates – and the failure of Democratic leaders to winnow the field – has allowed Republicans to offer up token GOP opposition to incumbents. That, in turn, raises the possibility, or probability in some districts, that June’s top two vote-getters will be an incumbent Republican and a “shadow candidate” of the same party – frustrating Democratic hopes of gaining some seats.

That is not the only political game in town.

Calmatters analyst Dan Morain wrote about an odd ad posted on the website of an entity calling itself the Asian American Small Business Political Action Committee attacking Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a leading candidate for governor. It cites an affair Newsom had with the wife of a top aide in 2005 – when he was San Francisco’s mayor.

The committee gets donations from a who’s who of powerful special-interest groups, some of which support Newsom. If aired more widely, the ad would potentially benefit Newsom’s major rivals – former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa or Treasurer John Chiang – as they try to advance from the June primary to the top-two election in November. The organization contributed $20,000 to Chiang’s campaign in 2016.

It isn’t, as Morain noted, the committee’s first foray into spoiler politics. Three years ago, it spent $124,000 on mailers to Republican voters trying to defeat Democrat Steve Glazer’s bid for a state Senate seat in Contra Costa County and help a more liberal, union-oriented Democrat. Glazer won anyway.

The committee’s current effort demonstrates how misleadingly named “independent expenditure” organizations operate while disguising their motives. It’s happened before, in 2002, before the top-two system began.

Interest groups backing Democratic Gov. Gray Davis for re-election spent heavily on pre-primary ads attacking Republican Richard Riordan, the former mayor of Los Angeles, considered Davis’ most electable rival. The goal was to help Republican businessman Bill Simon win the GOP nomination. It worked.

Davis, though unpopular, narrowly defeated Simon, confirming that had Riordan been the Republican nominee, Davis would have lost.

The top-two system might how political trickery works, but it’s always with us. Voters should be ever vigilant.

Dan Walters writes on matters of statewide significance for CALmatters, a public-interest journalism organization. Go to calmatters.org/commentary.