Until recently, lieutenant governors rarely ascended to the California governor’s seat

By Garry South

July 28, 2023


Given that two of the last four California governors – Gavin Newsom and Gray Davis – acceded to the position after serving as lieutenant governor, some might assume that it is fairly logical and almost automatic for the No. 2 to advance to No. 1.

Well, that would be wrong.

In the entire 173-year history of the state, only three sitting lieutenant governors have ever been elected governor. The first time was in 1922 – fully 72 years into that history. The second time was 76 years later: Davis in 1998. And Davis was also the first-ever Democratic understudy to be elected governor. Newsom was only the second.

Not only has it been a rare occurrence for lieutenant governors to become governor, but in modern times it has actually been more common for lieutenant governors to downsize themselves by running for and being elected to Congress, going from No. 2 in the largest state to one of 435.

John Garamendi in 2009, in the middle of his first term as lieutenant governor, left to run successfully for Congress in a special election. Before that, former Democratic lieutenant governor Mervyn Dymally, having lost his re-election bid in 1978, ran for and won a congressional seat in 1980. Democrat Glenn Anderson, lieutenant governor from 1959 to 1967, was also defeated running for a third term, and came back in 1968 to snare a congressional seat.

Were these promotions or demotions?

Other recent lieutenant governors have failed to move up – or down – to anything. The most recent was Cruz Bustamante, who offered himself up as a replacement for Davis in the 2003 recall and failed miserably, garnering only 31% of the vote as the only significant Democrat on the ballot. His ignominy was compounded three years later when he was demolished running as sitting lieutenant governor for lowly insurance commissioner – giving Bustamante the honor of being the last Democrat to lose an open-seat race for statewide office.

Lt. Gov. Mike Curb, the last Republican to hold the seat by beating then-incumbent Dymally in 1978, ran for the Republican nomination for governor in ‘82, and was handily beaten by George Deukmejian. Curb even came back in ‘86 and tried to reclaim his old job against incumbent Democrat Leo McCarthy – and was humiliated.

And speaking of McCarthy – California’s longest-serving lieutenant governor, at three terms – he never ran for governor, but he did try twice for U.S. Senate while holding the post. In 1988, he easily won the Democratic nomination, but was defeated in the general election by Pete Wilson – conferring on McCarthy the distinction of being the last Democrat to be bested by a Republican in a California Senate race. He tried again in ’92 as sitting lieutenant governor, but didn’t even make it out of the primary, defeated by Barbara Boxer.

I bring up all of this arcane history because the current lieutenant governor, Eleni Kounalakis, in her second term, has already announced that she is running to succeed Newsom in the seemingly faraway 2026 election. She won’t be alone as the only woman running to be the first female governor of the biggest state, since former two-term controller Betty Yee also has publicly declared she will be running.

Based on Newsom’s success in becoming governor after two terms as second-in-command, there might be a certain inevitability in Kounalakis’ bid. Her camp is certainly furiously pushing that narrative. She may well win, although it’s way too early to tell.

But, again, more California lieutenant governors have failed to win higher office than have succeeded. Running for anything as sitting lieutenant governor has been a decidedly mixed bag in recent history.