Opinion | If Anne Marie Schubert’s can’t survive the 2022 California primary, does our politics have a chance?

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Adam Lashinsky is former executive editor of Fortune magazine.

California hasn’t elected a Republican to statewide office since 2006, when voters hired the notably moderate Arnold Schwarzenegger for a second term as governor. That lopsided track record hasn’t prevented Anne Marie Schubert, an ex-Republican prosecutor, from mounting an independent bid in this state’s “top two” open primary on Tuesday for attorney general, California’s second-most-powerful job.

Schubert should do well with Democrats who see their party failing on public safety and with Republicans who know their own candidates cannot win. But she has virtually no chance of winning — and that’s a reminder of why third-party bids for office are usually the longest of long shots.

On paper, Schubert is an ideal general-election candidate. Currently district attorney in Sacramento County, Schubert is an openly gay, pro-choice, anti-Trump 58-year-old who wrote in Condoleezza Rice twice for president. She is best known for having prosecuted the ex-cop known as the Golden State Killer, who was nabbed by a pathbreaking DNA investigation and is serving multiple life sentences for 13 murders and nearly 50 rapes in the 1970s and 1980s.

Before being elected in Sacramento, Schubert worked for her entire career as a prosecutor in several California counties. She says she would enforce even laws she originally opposed. She was against legalized marijuana, for example, but she would support the law by going after illegal pot growers. And she’s in tune with California’s support for abortion rights, no matter what happens to Roe v. Wade in the U.S. Supreme Court. “The concept that there are states that are going to criminalize this, I find appalling,” she says. “Especially when you’re talking about somebody that is a victim of a crime.”

Schubert says the state has gone too far in relaxing sentencing guidelines for felons. She is particularly outraged by measures that decline to define domestic violence as a violent crime. She is probably helped in her quest by rising dissatisfaction with the progressive district attorneys in Los Angeles and San Francisco, George Gascón and Chesa Boudin, who have championed causes such as eliminating cash bail and de-emphasizing the prosecutions of low-level crimes. Even San Francisco voters have had enough of Boudin’s emphasis on criminal justice reform; they’re expected to recall the district attorney in a vote on Tuesday.

Schubert also talks about California’s most visible problem — homelessness — with a candor that the two parties can’t afford. In an hour-long interview late last month, Schubert described the problem as an “epidemic along every freeway, under overpasses, in nooks and crannies. It’s inhumane, what’s happening. Everybody knows it. And everybody wants to help them. Because it’s pervasive.”

Homelessness doesn’t equate with crime, of course. But Schubert’s conflation of the two resonates with voters: “This epidemic of drug addiction, mental health and homelessness intersects with public safety in people’s quality of lives.” The groundswell of support for the effort to boot Boudin suggests that even San Francisco liberals — there are only about 30,000 registered Republicans in the city, yet some 80,000 voters signed a petition to put his recall on the ballot — would like public officials to focus at least as much on public safety as on criminal justice reform.

So why can’t Schubert win? Because in a state where primary campaigns are the main barrier to entry to the fall ballot, party endorsements still matter. In a deeply divided political moment, both parties will get their share of their bases: The incumbent Democrat, Rob Bonta, appointed to the job last year by Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) when Xavier Becerra joined the Biden administration, enjoys the wholehearted support of the state Democratic machine. And both Republicans in the five-way race are polling ahead of Schubert.

That’s partly because primaries are famously low-turnout affairs, peopled mostly by older voters who tend to be party stalwarts and not in the market for new approaches. No hot governor’s race is underway this year to draw otherwise gettable, nonaligned voters to the polls. It doesn’t help that Schubert’s underfunded campaign is relying largely on digital ads that most voters won’t see. Schubert knows even her modest goal — to get more votes than the Republican candidates — is a challenge. “My mission is to get to the top two,” she says. “That’s it.”

Still, Schubert tops her bid with one other uncommon boast: She says she has no higher political aspirations. That’s notable considering the bipartisan list of past California attorneys general includes former governors Earl Warren, Pat Brown, George Deukmejian and Jerry Brown, as well as Vice President Harris. Schubert casts her independence from the Republican Party as a qualification for the nonpartisan office she seeks. “My political party has never played a role in anything,” says Schubert. “I have my own view about things.”

If only American politics were ready for that kind of leadership.