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What to Watch for During California's Primary Election

Voters opening their ballots for California's June 5 primary will find an abundance of candidates. Twenty-seven people, ranging from a puppeteer to two men who served as mayors of the state's largest cities, will square off for governor. Thirty-one men and women are on the list to try to unseat U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, who has served in her job since 1992.

The latest USC/Los Angeles Times poll shows state Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, in the lead to replace Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, with a tough battle in the "Top Two" primary to determine whether a Republican or Democrat faces him in a November runoff.

Democrats will be watching at least seven Republican-held congressional seats they hope to turn to take back the U.S. House of Representatives majority.

Here's some keys to watch for as voters head to the polls: If Newsom is indeed leading, who comes in second and what does that mean?

According to the Los Angeles Times/USC poll released Wednesday, 39 percent of voters hadn't decided on a candidate, but Newsom -- a former San Francisco mayor -- has led polls from the start. The latest poll shows him in front at 26 percent, followed by former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a fellow Democrat, and Republican John Cox, a San Diego businessman, tied at 11 and 10 percent, respectively. Cox received an endorsement from President Donald Trump, which might help him with conservatives.

State Treasurer John Chiang, a Democrat and Republican Assemblyman Travis Allen, trailed in single digits.

"I think it's fairly safe to say that Gavin Newsom will make it into the runoff, but other than that, it is very fluid," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a professor at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy and an internationally-recognized political analyst.

Bob Shrum, director of USC's Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, said Newsom would easily beat Cox. Two Democrats facing off for governor, and possibly two for U.S. senator, might also give reason for Republicans to stay home in November, affecting other races.

A Newsom-Cox race would likely lead to a Democratic win, but would we have a better election race if the two Democrats head to the runoff?

"The first thing to look at here is to see if Villaraigosa can get his Latino numbers up. He has to do that to end up in second place," Shrum said.

"On the other side, Cox is now using Trump, which he should, to try to consolidate enough Republican support to come in second. It will hurt him in the general election, but it might help him in the primary."

If Villaraigosa finishes second, the question will be if he can raise enough money to compete with Newsom, Shrum said. He'll also have to find a way to appeal to moderate Republicans who won't vote for the progressive Newsom. Shrum suggested Villaraigosa will take moderate positions on an issue like single-payer healthcare to attract their votes.

"I don't know who has the momentum," Shrum said. "Maybe Cox has the momentum with what he is doing with the Trump stuff. Maybe Latinos will vote in greater numbers for Villaraigosa than any of the polling shows."

Jeffe said if Newsom has his way, he will face Cox. He is currently running ads for himself that slam Cox, but they might also work to help Cox because they may solidify support among conservative Republicans.

"It would well ensure instead of facing Antonio Villaraigosa in the runoff, Gavin may be facing John Cox," Jeffe said. "And it's totally over."

Do voters care? Why is nobody seemingly paying attention?

Although the potential exists for a San Francisco versus Los Angeles governor's race, or a progressive candidate against a solid Trump supporter, most people haven't paid much mind to the coming election. The Times poll shows 87 percent of the public had not watched any of the gubernatorial debates.

"I think it's an indication this is not a race that has excited people," Shrum said. "If you look at the issues, like the Trump tax cut and voting against the Affordable Care Act, people have very strong positions on those...There's more energy around issues in those than the candidates."

Watch Voters in L.A. Get Quizzed on Election Knowledge

Who are all these people running against Dianne Feinstein and can anyone beat her?

If the Times poll is correct, no. The state's popular senior senator, who will turn 85 on June 22, is apparently cruising to another 6-year term. In her television ads, Feinstein speaks out on her signature issue, bringing back a ban on assault weapons, which she championed in the 1990s.

Her closest competitor is California state Sen. Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, who represents the Los Angeles downtown area, East Los Angeles and adjacent communities. He positioned himself as the more progressive candidate, receiving support from labor leaders and Democratic groups and politicians.

The latest poll, however, shows Feinstein with 31 percent support, and de Leon second with 7. No Republican has more than 3 percent support.

Despite Feinstein's standing in the poll, Jeffe said "she ought to be higher than that."

De Leon initially tried to portray himself as young and new, but it appears he will fall short.

"He is the darling of the quote 'progressive wing' of the party of the state," Jeffe said. "It's the older voters who tend to be the high propensity voter."

Shrum said the age argument didn't work.

"It's ageist, No. 1, and older voters don't like it at all," Shrum said. "If you look at her on television, she doesn't seem anything but vigorous and healthy."

Should Democrats flip the U.S. Senate, Feinstein -- the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee -- would take over as chair.

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Will Democrats put California in the position of possibly flipping the U.S. House of Representatives majority or will the Top Two primary system work against them?

Democrats across the nation need to turn 24 Republican-held seats their way and keep the seats they already hold to take charge in the house and put House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi back into her former role as Speaker.

Much of the nation has focused on the "Blue Wave," anti-Trump enthusiasm among Democrats heading to the polls. California democrats have targeted at least seven Republican congressional seats. Among them are retiring incumbents Ed Royce's 39th District seat representing parts of Orange, Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties; Darrell Issa's 49th District representing south Orange north San Diego counties. Dana Rohrbacher, an Orange County Republican who has served in Congress for 30 years could also be endangered, facing primary challenges from five members of his own party and eight Democrats.

The same is true in the 39th District. Seven Republicans and six Democrats are on the ballot to replace Royce.

"One of the things to look for is do (the Democrats) split the votes so that two Republicans end up in the top two," Shrum said.

Jeffe said Democrats need to turn as many of those seven seats as they can to take back the House, but agreed the number of Democrats on the ballot might hurt their chances.

"It may not be as easy as it looked a few weeks ago," Jeffe said. "Trump's approval rating is up...There may be a Republican vs. Republican runoff and no Democrats. It's not what the Democrats are prepared to see."

Once voters get through the lengthy ballot of candidates, will they take the time to vote on the propositions?

The June 5 ballot doesn't include any real controversial measures such as in past years, such same-sex marriage or the death penalty. There's a bond measure to fund parks and water quality projects, and a measure designed to prohibit the state Legislature from using gas tax funds collected for transportation projects for other purposes.

Jeffe said November might be more interesting when Californians might get to decide whether to repeal the 12 cent per gallon tax imposed last year and perhaps vote on a proposition to split California into three states.

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