By Ben Goddard - 06/15/06 12:00 AM EDT
Since the California primary election last week, most attention has been focused on the narrow victory that former Rep. Brian Bilbray (R) eked out in a special election to replace former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R), who was sentenced for fraud earlier this year. But after spending a week on the left coast, I came away with the impression that the real Republican victory June 6 was in the Democratic primary for governor.
For reasons that escape independent observers and defy political logic, two Democrats with little to separate themselves but ambition fought a fierce fight for the right to face a seemingly weak Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in November. Early this year, Arnold’s poll numbers were in the same swamp the president has been slogging through. Looking at those numbers, state Treasurer Phil Angelides and state Controller Steve Westly eagerly jumped in.
Angelides has labored for years as a Democratic stalwart and had the loyalty of party insiders. Westly was a founder of eBay first elected to state-wide office in 2002. Neither is particularly charismatic — and that is probably a generous assessment of their abilities on the stump or the tube.
Westly went negative early, using $35 million of his fortune to claim that Angelides was a former developer and that he had almost single-handedly destroyed the Lake Tahoe environment. Angelides charged that Westly was a Schwarzenegger clone willing to cut funding for education and healthcare. Angelides wanted to raise taxes on the middle class, Westly responded. And so it went.
At first the Westly attacks seemed to give him the lead. Then Angelides won the Democratic Party endorsement with the help of labor and longtime activists, putting him in a competitive position again.
Enter Sacramento developer Angelo Tsakopoulos and his daughter, longtime patrons of Angelides, with nearly $9 million of their own money in an independent-expenditure campaign attacking Westly. The Westly campaign responded that this was proof Angelides was bought and paid for.
Meanwhile, Gov. Arnold went about the business of being governor. He fashioned a legislative compromise that will put nearly $40 billion of bonds on the November ballot and stood shoulder to shoulder with the Democratic leadership of the Assembly and Senate to announce the deal.
The nasty nature of the campaign was a major contributor to a low turnout and a high number of undecided voters. At least one candidate poll had them tied at 33 percent each on the Sunday before the election. Fewer than 30 percent of eligible voters turned out, although absentee and provisional ballots may push that total closer to 33 percent. Clearly, voters were not impressed by either candidate or the campaigns they ran. Eventually Angelides won, with roughly 48 percent of the vote.
The day after the election, Gov. Arnold was in full campaign mode with a bus-stop tour of the state, where he drew large crowds and every available television camera. The man still has star power. Whatever media market he visits, he leads the local news, a feat no other politician save a president can muster. After four days of flexing his political muscles, Arnold was off to the Western Governors’ Association, showing every sign of intending to play the role of governor — at least through the state budget process.
So the once-faltering governor appears to be regaining his balance while a badly wounded Democratic nominee prepares to defend his calls for tax increases to fund schools. Arnold already has a plan to put more money into education without a tax hike and a package of bonds to rebuild California’s infrastructure that has broad bipartisan support.
There is no guarantee that California voters are ready to support more bonds, of course, but there is even stronger evidence they don’t want the kind of tax increases Angelides proposed in the primary. (Witness the defeat June 6 of Prop 82, which would have raised taxes on California’s wealthy for preschools. The measure was rejected 61 to 39 percent.)
Angelides’s candidacy gives the governor plenty of room to run toward the center. He’s begun to talk more about global warming, education and healthcare. He has the ability to draw crowds and cameras. He’s a consummate retail campaigner with the ability to charm voters and the willingness to make a personal connection. In other words, he is everything the Democratic nominee is not.
This should be a good year for Democrats in California, but if there is one clear message from the primary election it is that they probably have the wrong horse in the wrong race at the wrong time.
Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy.