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The GOP's California Blues

Friday, February 1, 2002

Nineteen eighty-eight is the answer to two California trivia questions: It’s the last time the Dodgers won in the post-season and also the last time a Republican won either a presidential or Senate election in the Golden State. The baseball metaphor is appropriate: If the big leagues ran the state parties, the California gop, with few wins, a fractious roster, and a market that seemingly cares little for the Republicans’ product, would seem an inviting target for either relocation or consolidation.

It’s the new reality of the land that gave birth to the Reagan Revolution. Republican folklore has long honored California as a kingmaker and a wellspring of Republican ambition. In eight of the 10 presidential elections from 1948 to 1984, at least one California Republican — Earl Warren, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan — was on the Republican ticket. California’s Orange County, home of John Wayne Airport, remains the spiritual homeland of paleoconservatives, a place where you can occasionally still find an “AuH2O” bumper sticker. But California is fast becoming a graveyard for Republican fortunes.

Dating back to 1996, California has gone Democratic in each and every presidential, gubernatorial, and U.S. Senate election — while Texas has done precisely the opposite. One of those Republicans in whom Texans placed their trust, George W. Bush, sank approximately $15 million into his California operation during the course of the 2000 election yet managed to lose the state by more votes than Bob Dole did four years earlier. In that same election, California Republicans dropped four congressional seats, four assembly seats, and a state senate seat. Republicans are now outnumbered 32–20 in California’s U.S. House delegation. Democrats enjoy nearly two-thirds majorities in both houses of the state legislature.

And there’s more. Only one of California’s six state constitutional offices is held by a Republican — secretary of state — and it’s not much of a partisan office at that; California’s secretary of state traditionally champions “good government” issues like voter turnout and registration. Look on the state party’s website and you’ll see pictures of the president, the vice president, Colin Powell, and Donald Rumsfeld. But not one Californian, not even Condoleezza Rice, President Bush’s national security advisor.

The fading of California Republicanism might spell disaster for the party nationally. Conventional wisdom holds that American political trends flow like the jet stream — west to east. In theory, that means voting trends that emerge in California eventually find their way to Washington. Exhibit A in this argument is Proposition 13, the California tax revolt of 1978. Two years after that vote, Reagan was swept into the White House running on a similar theme of lower taxes and frustration with government. Since Proposition 13, the press has actually oversold California’s importance by assuming that almost every initiative that stirs up controversy in California has national implications. That’s not always the case, yet California still deserves a fair bit of the attention of national trend-spotters.

On the other hand, should Republicans reemerge as a major force there, California would virtually clinch electoral success for the party. If, in the 2004 election, President Bush were to win his native Texas (now 34 electoral votes) and his brother Jeb’s Florida (27 more), California’s 55 electoral votes alone would push the president more than 40 percent of the way toward reelection — with only three states. A Democratic challenger would need to win nearly two-thirds of the remaining electoral votes, 270 of 422, to win the election. That’s nearly impossible, given Republican advantages across the “blue state” Deep South and Great Plains. California is a necessity for Democrats. If Bush somehow could carry the state, California becomes Republican insurance.

But in the meantime, the 2002 election represents an uphill climb for Republicans both as a party out of power and as a party in decline. Republicans seek to replace a Democratic governor — not an easy chore, considering it has been exactly 60 years since a first-term California governor was ousted. Should the Republicans fail in this effort, it will beg the question of which came first: Did the Republican Party leave California, or did California leave the gop?

The rise and fall

When pete wilson took office in January 1991 as California’s thirty-sixth governor, Republicans were riding high. Wilson had fended off a challenge from Dianne Feinstein, who had re-crafted herself as a pro-death penalty, tough-as-nails moderate — a preview of the Clinton 1992 campaign (Clinton and Feinstein even shared Dee Dee Myers as a press secretary). Wilson, who had earned a reputation as a California centrist (tough on crime, pro-choice, military hawk), planned an ambitious series of health services he termed “preventive government” — investments in prenatal care, early mental health counseling, and so on — the idea being that kids raised healthier and more content would not turn to harmful choices like gang violence and teen pregnancy.

Unfortunately, Wilson’s agenda ran afoul of California’s worst economic crisis since the Great Depression — the end of the Cold War and the collapse of Southern California’s defense contracting sector. The state would reach double-digit unemployment as its recession lingered for three years. Within weeks of taking office, the new governor faced a $14.3 billion deficit in a $43 billion budget. Wilson solved the state’s fiscal crisis by cutting a deal with the Democratic legislature — making up for the deficit through one part spending cuts, one part tax increases. What ensued was the first of several fissures in the state gop; the party’s hard right never forgave Wilson for the tax hike.

If the economic crisis foiled Wilson’s version of “compassionate conservatism,” it also set the tone for California politics in the first half of the 1990s. In hard economic times, the state’s legislative agenda was decidedly “Republican”; criminal justice and business climate reforms made the headlines in Sacramento. By 1994, an economic recovery set the tone for a banner Republican year. Wilson, presumed to be political road kill when his approval rating shrank to 15 percent in 1992, defeated Kathleen Brown (Jerry’s sister) by 15 points on election day. While the national party won back the Congress, California Republicans won four of six state constitutional offices and control of the state assembly. And Michael Huffington came within an eyelash of ousting Feinstein, now a U.S. senator.

Ironically, the Republicans’ policy successes ultimately did them in. In the second half of the 1990s, California went from fiftieth to first in the nation in job creation. The state realized a new economy driven by tech, trade, and tourism — and a new era of wealth the likes of which California hadn’t seen since the Gold Rush of the 1840s. As hard times disappeared, so too did a voting majority who felt the state was on a “wrong track.” The gop lost its audience for “tough talk” on crime and spending. Californians shifted their attention to “softer issues” like education and the environment, and in doing so moved the state’s political “center” from the right to the middle, if not the left of center.

In a sense, what occurred in California is little different from the challenge the national Republican Party faced in the 2000 election, when the Bush campaign correctly recognized the need to balance something old (tax cuts) with something new (“compassionate” conservatism) to appeal to an electorate adapting to the post-Cold War era. Only, California Republicans failed to adjust to the changing times. And to compound matters, Republicans found themselves trying to compete in a state that further skewed to the left. Few states if any remained as loyal to Bill Clinton throughout the impeachment ordeal. And while the state’s population grew, it did so in a manner that worked against Republicans. California’s elderly and more Republican population decreased; the state’s fastest-growing sector — Hispanics — registered heavily as new Democrats.

The media, of course, would seize on that latter trend. While media outlets have devoted much attention to the news that California has become a majority-minority state, with Hispanics so visibly on the rise, not as much attention has been given to the fact that California’s voting population is becoming more Democratic. By the 2000 election, Democrats held a 1.7 million advantage among registered voters, 45 percent to 35 percent.

At the same time, California Republicans continue to cope with the fallout from 1994’s Proposition 187 (illegal immigration) and 1996’s Proposition 209 (racial quotas). Prop 187, the so-called Save Our State Initiative, sought to cut off health and social services benefits for illegal immigrants, most notably their children’s access to public schools. Though approved by voters, the law was immediately blocked in federal court and never enforced. Prop 209, the California Civil Rights Initiative, outlawed the factoring of race and gender — i.e., minority “set-aside” programs — in either government contracting or public university admissions. Unlike Prop 187, Prop 209 did withstand a court challenge and is currently state law. Democrats have used the two initiatives to brand the California gop — and Republicans in general — as racially and culturally insensitive. Some Republican moderates now choose either to duck or to denounce the measures; some conservatives want to run them again.

The problem with being a party of regrets is, of course, that it makes for lousy politics. And Republicans are especially lousy apologists. In California, it’s easy to look back on the past decade and see strategic flaws. For example, in an ideal world, California would have had several years to debate illegal immigration, rather than the issue taking on such strong political overtones when it emerged in the form of a ballot initiative. Similarly, Proposition 209’s appearance on the November 1996 ballot was more fodder for Democrats as the initiative came on the heels of Prop 187 and coincided with Gov. Wilson’s presidential ambitions. (In Wilson’s defense, neither initiative was meant as a political crutch: Wilson saw Prop 187 as a states’ rights argument — federal reimbursement of a federal responsibility; Wilson considered Prop 209 a means to address reverse discrimination in the form of racial quotas.) Further alienating minorities — Hispanics in particular — was 1998’s Proposition 227. That measure, sponsored by the political maverick Ron Unz and opposed by all statewide politicians with the exception of Gov. Wilson (even though it would pass with 60 percent of the vote), required all public instruction in California schools to be conducted in English, with English immersion programs not to exceed one year for children not fluent in English.

But if common sense seems to dictate that California Republicans should denounce the aforementioned ballot measures as mistakes, common sense would be wrong. Ask any California pollster and he will tell you that if Propositions 187, 209, or 227 were on the ballot in November 2002, each would win by the same healthy margin as previously (187 perhaps more so, given America’s newfound interest in alien documentation and border security).

Why, then, has support of these ballot measures spawned long-term problems for Californians? In simplest terms, it’s an image problem. A strong intellectual case can be made in defense of Props 187, 209, and 227 — bilingual education is fatally flawed; affirmative action, though well-intended, has led to quotas and reverse discrimination; states like California were unfairly paying for the federal government’s failure to address illegal immigration. Yet each of the ballot propositions sent a message of anger, frustration and — as easily spun by Democrats and a sympathetic press corps — Anglos beating up on minorities. At a time when the economy was on the mend and the state was regaining its sense of optimism, it became all too easy for Democrats to portray Republicans as spiteful, non-empathetic, and stuck in the past.

A cultural rift

During the 1980s, Californians talked openly of dividing in two — into northern and southern states — because of differences over water supplies and tax burdens. A similar division exists within the California gop. Northern California Republicans — in particular, the ones in San Francisco and Silicon Valley — tend to be moneyed, moderate, pro-choice, and environmentalist. Southern Californians — the “true believers” of Orange County, San Diego, and the Inland Empire region — are more conservative and grassroots-oriented; they are pro-life and pro-Second Amendment. One’s an npr crowd; the other listens to Rush Limbaugh.

While the two factions share the same party, there’s not much shared love. And, unfortunately, it shows. In the 1994 Republican primary, 34 percent of Republicans voted against Wilson in favor of Ron Unz, a conservative Silicon Valley tech executive and, four years later, the author of Prop 227. The primary vote was, in effect, a conservative protest vote against Wilson for raising taxes. But moderates got their revenge in 1998 when the conservative Dan Lungren lost to the current governor, Gray Davis, by nearly 20 percent.

Interestingly, one of the more bitter intraparty fights occurred on the hallowed ground that is Orange County. There, a moderate group called the New Majority Committee took on the county party apparatus — the county central committee and its conservative chairman, Tom Fuentes. The New Majority Committee described its members as “fiscally conservative and socially moderate.” What they constitute are 100 or so very wealthy Republican entrepreneurs, including some billionaires, intent upon financing the political fortunes of more centrist, pragmatic candidates. As their mission statement explains, “Polls and voting analyses show that many view the party as intolerant and exclusive, which is resulting in large defections among Republican women, minorities and moderate voters.”

Although the group failed to oust Fuentes, they were correct in drawing attention to the Republican disconnect with certain voting groups — women in particular. In 1994, though running against a female candidate, Pete Wilson won a majority of women voters. Four years later, a million fewer women voted for Dan Lungren. For all the attention given the gop’s Latino problems, this “million-woman march” is primarily responsible for the California gop’s inability to capture statewide races.

Reaching out to these disaffected groups has been the particular mission of one man: Gerry Parsky. Undersecretary of the Treasury in the first Bush administration and a Wilson appointee to the University of California Board of Regents, Parsky is now George W. Bush’s chief political emissary in California. Parsky is an investment banker by trade and brings the same business mentality to his politics: He’s most interested in bottom-line results. So Parsky hasn’t been loath to ruffle conservative feathers in California. It was Parsky who assembled a cosmetically diverse delegation of Californians for the 2000 Republican National Convention and inflamed conservatives by including Toni Casey, an abortion rights activist and former Democrat.

And it was Parsky, with the full blessing of the White House, who brokered a series of reforms that transformed the California Republican Party into a more corporate structure run by a more moderate coalition. Parsky serves as the chairman of the California gop’s Budget and Expenditures Committee. Consequently, he — and, by extension, the Bush White House — will hold unusual sway over which candidates get top priority in the coming election. That could mean an emphasis on “unconventional” Republican candidates. As Parsky told reporters at last fall’s state party convention, “We were a minority party in this state. We were [viewed as] anti-immigration, anti-woman, anti-Hispanic, anti-education. Those days are over — because we keep losing.”

But Parsky is meeting stiff resistance from the party’s conservatives. This is the party, after all, in which conservatives liken non-conservatives to an often-fatal disease: a flyer passed out at the party’s winter convention in 2001 warned, “Moderates are truly the cancer in the body of the Republican Party.”

Moderates, for their part, can sound just as bellicose. In December, for example, gubernatorial candidate Richard Riordan attended a northern California fundraiser sponsored by pro-choice activists. One of the event’s organizers, Jillian Manus-Salzman, told reporters, “I’m so sick of [conservatives] stealing our party, and our candidates. . . . We’re going to create our own march, our own soldiers.”

Three directions

The republicans’ course in California will be set after the party chooses a gubernatorial nominee in the March 2002 primary. The three candidates are California Secretary of State Bill Jones, former Los Angeles Mayor Richard J. Riordan, and investment banker William Simon Jr.

All three are male and white. Beyond that, the similarities end, for the three candidates represent the three directions in which California Republicans run for statewide office. Jones, a farmer from California’s Central Valley, is banking on grassroots support and his credentials as a veteran officeholder. Simon is running as a darling of the National Review crowd — a champion of the same “empowerment” agenda espoused by Jack Kemp, Steve Forbes, and Brett Schundler. Riordan, a venture capitalist and philanthropist before he ran the City of Los Angeles, is a political moderate and abortion rights advocate, and is banking on his crossover appeal and high name recognition in Southern California.

All three come at a risk in a race against incumbent governor Gray Davis. Jones has low name recognition across the state and limited access to campaign donations, since the big donors who support President Bush won’t forgive Jones for switching his endorsement from Bush to John McCain following the 2000 New Hampshire primary. Simon, meanwhile, is a political newcomer who has never been in a high-stakes race. As for Riordan, his past record of donating to Democrats (Davis, Feinstein, Rep. Maxine Waters) infuriates some Republicans who might turn their backs on him in the general election.

These differences also underscore the challenge facing the Republicans in their uphill battle to carry the state. In order to win statewide, the gop can talk conservative, but ultimately it has to play to the middle — making up for that 10 percent disadvantage in voter registration by winning over fence-sitting independents. The key to Gray Davis’s unexpected success in 1998 was his ability to position himself as the centrist in that year’s gubernatorial race. From there, he was able to portray Lungren as an extremist. Davis did this quite cleverly, using a series of five gubernatorial debates to paint Lungren into a too-conservative corner. In one debate, Davis pointed out Lungren’s differences with Wilson on abortion and gun control. In another, Davis noted that Lungren, as a congressman, voted against the 1986 Safe Drinking Water Act that President Reagan eventually signed, thus suggesting Lungren was to the right of the Gipper. Lungren didn’t help matters with miscues of his own: a television spot that talked about his pro-life stance and another ad (called “Character Counts”) that criticized Davis for not coming out early and loud when the Lewinsky scandal broke.

If Republicans are going to have any success in 2002, they are going to have to decide where California’s viable center lies. Is it pro-life and decidedly conservative, as are Jones and Simon? Is it pro-choice and non-conformist, as is Riordan?

This was long the secret of Pete Wilson’s success. His campaigns were, essentially, a smorgasbord for California voters. Wilson could at the same time project himself as a moderate and as a conservative, and in so doing build a winning majority of Republicans, crossover Democrats, independents, and — most important of all — women. For example, as governor in July 1992, Wilson launched a health program called enabl (Education Now and Babies Later) aimed at curbing teen pregnancy. It was the kind of program Democrats love: lots of school activities and a healthy public relations budget (the program turned out to be something of a bust — the state deduced that the more teens were lectured on sex, the more interested they became). Yet at the same time, Wilson was pressing the Clinton administration for some of the nation’s most draconian welfare reforms and encouraged counties to aggressively crack down on fraud by fingerprinting welfare recipients. Similarly, Wilson thrilled law-and-order types in 1994 by signing the nation’s first “Three Strikes” law, yet also delighted liberal health activists when he signed the nation’s first ban on smoking in bars.

Of course, neither Wilson nor any other California politician has ever had to contend with a challenge the likes of September 11. It’s a wild card in a state where it’s rather easy to count the cards. But assume that it will remain at the forefront of this election cycle. Californians’ lifestyles have been affected, and this is a state that places a premium on quality of life — from the weather to access to beaches and mountains. Moreover, each of the three planes that crashed on September 11 was headed for California — a point of pathos that Gov. Davis mentioned in his 2002 State of the State Address (a 35-minute speech, seven and a half of which were devoted to the events of September 11) and that the California media and candidates won’t soon forget.

If outcomes in California aren’t predictable, figuring a winning gop formula is. To earn a majority of the vote on Election Day in California, Republicans need to win 39.5 percent of the vote in Los Angeles County, 57.9 percent in San Diego County, 50.9 percent in Sacramento County, and 23.1 percent in San Francisco.

Crunching the numbers is the easy part. Figuring out what’s on the public’s mind is harder. At present, security and the economy have replaced education as the public’s top concerns. Interestingly, today’s California gop doesn’t lack for potential issues to exploit. The state suffers from a massive $12.5 billion deficit, and businesses are reluctant to take root in California due to a combination of high taxes, a poor infrastructure, and spotty public schools. It’s difficult to see how California’s quality of life has improved in the past three years, even though the state budget has grown by nearly 40 percent. Electricity deregulation and the power crisis of 2000-2001, the dominant topic over the past year in California, have taken a back seat due in part to September 11 and in part to the fact that cataclysmic blackouts never materialized (thanks mainly to a moderate winter and a cool summer in Northern California).

Getting these issues to resonate will be a challenge given the great distraction of the war on terrorism. But Republicans have at least one thing going for them: Surveys show Californians giving lower marks to only one politician since September 11, and it just happens to be the incumbent governor, Gray Davis.

Star power?

Still, california’s two Republican factions remain at an impasse. And no proven, unifying candidate exists to bridge the divide. Consider the fate of the Class of 1994, swept into office in that year’s Republican Revolution. Wilson was forced out, due to term limits, after his second term as governor. He couldn’t run again even if the party drafted him. Lungren, the attorney general, lost to Davis in the 1998 governor’s race. Matt Fong, the state treasurer, lost to Barbara Boxer in a 1998 U.S. Senate race. Chuck Quackenbush, the state insurance commissioner, resigned from office amidst scandal. Only Bill Jones, the little-known secretary of state, remains to run for governor. The old cliché about University of Texas football, “we don’t rebuild, we reload,” doesn’t apply to the California gop. For the foreseeable future, California Republicans will find themselves, every two years, running a candidate not already prominent in state politics — unless, that is the unpredictable occurs. Barbara Boxer is expected to seek a third Senate term in 2004. Two big names will surely surface as challengers: Rep. David Dreier and Rep. Christopher Cox. And both will probably decline, as they always seem to do.

But two other possibilities have so far attracted little attention: Rep. Mary Bono and the actor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Neither has been a candidate for statewide office. Schwarzenegger has flirted with the idea since the early 1990s; Bono is from the Republican stronghold of Palm Springs, not the most contentious of districts. They have other similarities: Bono and Schwarzenegger are telegenic. They hold similar views on abortion, gun control, and the environment. Each has a famous last name. It’s called star power, and California is a state that worships celebrity status.

The possibility of a celebrity candidate may not sit well with Republican traditionalists, who like to recount the stories of how a young Dick Nixon climbed his way up the political ladder and how Ronald Reagan led California’s conservative movement from the fringes to the center of power in Sacramento. But wait a minute: Wasn’t that Reagan fellow himself a showman? Vanity about grassroots politics aside, maybe it’s time California Republicans looked for a new way to win — a “star” who can bypass the message and image problems.

It may sound like a desperate step, the California gop “going Hollywood.” But what are the alternatives? Perhaps Davis will, in fact, become the second governor in 60 years to lose reelection. Perhaps President Bush will maintain his lofty approval ratings, making his second term all but a fait accompli and enabling the California gop to ride his coattails.

In an April 2001 address to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the president mentioned a headline he’d like to see: “Two million overlooked ballots suggest Bush won California.” The president can laugh; he won his election. But in the coming year, will the joke be on California Republicans?