California’s Central Valley could pick the state’s next governor, political columnist Dan Walters told a group of Bakersfield business leaders Thursday, laying out some election year predictions.

In the likely event that Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa are the top two vote-getters coming out of the June primary, their votes could be split regionally — Newsom’s from Northern California, where he gained support as mayor of San Francisco, and Villaraigosa’s from Southern California, where he became symbolic of a rising Latino political movement.

“One could envision a situation in which Southern California goes for Villaraigosa, and the Bay Area goes to Newsom, and the Central Valley really decides who’s going for governor,” Walters said in front of a packed crowd at the Greater Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce Board Installation and Awards Luncheon at Seven Oaks Country Club.

He spoke as part of a panel along with Rob Lapsey, of the California Business Roundtable, about the 2018 election outlook.

Both Lapsey and Walters wondered whether, with Villaraigosa running, this could be the year that the state’s great sleeping giant, the Latino vote, awakens.

“Is this the year that the Latino community truly becomes empowered?” Lapsey asked. “We’re watching that very closely.”

But all of that could be moot, Lapsey said, given the recent unpredictability of politics. For example, President Donald Trump was elected despite early polling that predicted otherwise. Meanwhile, sexual harassment scandals have coursed through mainstream politics, resulting in resignations from both parties.

“Villaraigosa and Newsom have a little problem in that direction, at least in the past,” Walters said. “We can certainly see that come out in the campaigns. They both have strayed a little bit.”

So, who would be the more oil-friendly governor, a big factor in Bakersfield, which relies heavily fossil-fuel energy to drive its economy?

Not Newsom, Walters said, despite his business background.

“Antonio Villaraigosa is a few notches to the right of Gavin Newsom. He’s paddling his canoe to the right, to borrow a Jerry Brown phrase, and he’s a skeptic of single-payer healthcare and a skeptic of some of the things Berniecrats want that Gavin Newsom has embraced,” Walters said.

Walters also said it’s critical to pay attention to who will be running as lieutenant governor. He offered an example that might seem like something of a longshot, but theoretically could occur: If Dianne Feinstein is re-elected to the U.S. Senate, she could resign in a year given that she didn’t want to run in the first place, but was pressured to do so by the national Democratic Party. If that were to happen, Newsom could appoint himself to her seat, better situating himself for an eventual run for president.

“Then the  lieutenant governor becomes governor,” Walters said. “You’d better pay attention to who’s going after it.”

None of these predictions matter, however, given how volatile politics has been lately, both said. 

Said Walters: "It's going to be a very unpredictable year." 

Harold Pierce covers education and health for The Californian. He can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter @RoldyPierce

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